Get the latest updates as we post them — right on your browser

. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

ResearchersDrilling for Antarctica's Secret Past

CAPE ROBERTS, Antarctica -- A New Zealand-Italian team winched an 18-ton drill rig from the deck of a ship and hauled it over treacherous sea ice Thursday at the start of a six-nation Antarctic climate study.

Under a blazing midnight sun at the height of the polar summer, engineers watched anxiously as the bulky structure dangled from the end of a cable before touching down safely on ice just 1.3 meters thick. A curious leopard seal was the only local observer of the risky operation on a stretch of sea ice some 20 kilometers from shore, against the stunning backdrop of the Transantarctic mountains.

Scientists hope that by drilling through some 1,500 meters of rock on the Antarctic sea bed, they can uncover a record of climate change between 30 million and 100 million years ago.

This was a time when Antarctica was joined to present-day Australia, India, Africa and South America in a super-continent called Gondwana that later broke apart.

"We believe that by drilling into rocks of this age we should get some sort of record of this split-up," said Alex Pyne of Victoria University in Wellington.

Scientists are looking to obtain a core of rock strata in which they will look for signs of past glaciation, where ice has ground the rock and deposited sand, stones and mud.

Although ice has covered Antarctica for the past 36 million years, geologists are unsure whether ice sheets existed before then, causing fluctuations in worldwide sea levels. The answer could provide clues to the impact of current global warming.

The successful ship unloading was not without its hazards.

As it neared completion, a large chunk of sea ice collapsed alongside the hull of the supply ship Italica, where one of the New Zealand team was working with a bulldozer.

"The whole thing was just rocking around, and he just put his foot down and came up over the lip of it," said project manager Jim Cowie.

About 150 tons of equipment, including shipping containers fitted out as dormitories and laboratories, was hauled ashore on a circuitous 26 kilometer route to avoid cracks in the ice.

The equipment will be stored on Cape Roberts over the winter, and then towed back out onto the sea ice in late September, in temperatures expected to fall to minus 40 degrees Celsius, to start the first of two seasons of drilling.

New Zealand has agreed to run the $5 million dollar project on behalf of scientists from Britain, the United States, Germany, Italy and Australia.

Cowie, enjoying a quiet beer after 30 hours without sleep, acknowledged there were pitfalls and dangers at every stage of the project. "There are Achilles heels all the way along," he said.