A team of European researchers has set off for the North Pole to take part in a six-week expedition to study the geological history of the Arctic Ocean.
The ambitious programme, jointly funded by 16 countries including Switzerland, aims to shed light on climate change over the millennia.
Scientists know that 45-55 million years ago the Arctic was warm and ice-free, and that its waters were home to crocodiles.
By examining sediment recovered from beneath the sea floor, scientists hope to find clues as to why the climate changed from greenhouse to ice-age conditions.
Organised by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling (Ecord), the Arctic Coring Expedition (ACEX) represents the first attempt to bore through the Arctic Ocean bed.
To ensure the best chances of success, Ecord has equipped three ice-breakers – one fitted with a drill tower – for the mission. The ships set sail from the Norwegian port of Tromsö on August 8.
Professor Judith McKenzie of Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology, Swiss delegate to Ecord, said she was excited by the expedition, which is expected to be the first in a series of ocean drilling programmes.
She said drilling would be concentrated on the Lomonosov Ridge, an area 250 kilometres from the North Pole.
Sediment from the top of the ridge is believed to contain a continuous climate record dating back 50 million years.
“It’s a very specific area that’s been identified, where we could hopefully gain much-needed information about climate and environment change in the Arctic Ocean,” McKenzie told swissinfo.
“Through drill cores from the ocean you get something like a history book. You get a record of climate change that’s laid down year by year in the sediment.”
Nineteen scientists will take part in the €9 million (SFr14 million) expedition, but many more will be involved in analysing the sediment samples that will be delivered to the University of Bremen in Germany.
McKenzie described the expedition as “a major undertaking” in which there were many unknowns. But she said it could provide invaluable information for climate researchers.
“The Arctic Ocean plays a very important role in ocean circulation,” she said. “Water flows out of the Arctic into the northern Atlantic Ocean, and it’s the northern Atlantic Ocean circulation that drives our climate.
“This is really critical information [we are seeking] about how the Arctic Ocean has evolved.”
swissinfo, Morven McLean
The Arctic Coring Expedition runs from August 8 until September 16.
Scientists will extract sedimentary cores from the Lomonosov Ridge, 250 km from the North Pole.
The expedition is funded by the European Consortium for Ocean Research Drilling, Japan and the US.
Switzerland is one of 14 Ecord members.