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| Descartes Research Prize

At a ceremony held at the European Commission in Brussels in early March, the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) was awarded the Descartes prize for transnational collaborative research by the Directorate-General for Research. The prize honours transnational research teams that have achieved outstanding scientific results through collaborative work. EPICA shares the €1.36 million prize with two other  projects.

EPICA’s origins

The seeds of EPICA were planted in 1990 by the European project “Greenland Icecoring Project” (GRIP). The ice cores drilled in Greenland gave researchers a climate record going back some 110 000 years, but researchers were also interested in ice cores from Antarctica, especially from the interior, which could offer records significantly longer than those from Greenland.

Due to the size, scope and duration of the project, funding was needed from multiple sources. The main funding came from the European Commission through the Framework Programmes. National funding and other contributions derived from Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK.

Exploring the Antarctic

EPICA was motivated by the need to accurately predict how the global climate is likely to respond to increased emissions and greenhouse gases. For this, ice core records are of great relevance as they can document both the levels of greenhouse gases and the climatic conditions in the past.

The EPICA team selected two locations in Antarctica to extract ice cores. One was situated in the Indian Ocean sector of Antarctica called Dome C and the second was in Dronning Maud Land in the Atlantic Ocean sector. Dome C was chosen due to its thick and undisturbed ice sequence which was initially estimated to contain information going back at least 500 000 years and thereby giving insight on several climate cycles (alternating ice ages and warm periods with an approximate duration of 100 000 and 10 000 years respectively) as compared with the Greenland ice cores, which only reached back to the end of the previous warm period. A higher rate of snowfall at the Dronning Maud Land means that ice cores from there would be comparable (in length of time) with the Greenland cores; however, they made this location desirable in terms of helping the study of links between Atlantic-influenced climate patterns in the southern hemisphere and corresponding climate patterns in the northern hemisphere obtained from the analysis of the Greenland cores.

EPICA started in 1996 having received a first grant from the “Environment and Climate” programme under the Fourth Framework Programme. EU and national support continued over the following years and framework programmes. In 2006 the EPICA team succeeded in completing the drilling at Dome C by (almost) reaching to the bedrock more than 3 000m below the surface and thereby completing the recovery of an 800 000-year unbroken record of climate and environmental data.

Secrets of the ice

The ice cores extracted by EPICA have provided a huge amount of information, with EPICA establishing a record going back 800 000 years of climate, showing how it has evolved during this time. The data have underscored the tight link between concentrations of atmospheric CO2 (and methane) with climate, and that increased CO2 levels are closely linked with higher temperatures. The ice cores also confirm that current CO2 levels are unprecedented during this long period at about 30% higher than previously.

European cooperation

EPICA is made up of a 12-member consortium of universities and research organisations from across Europe.

The Descartes prize will be used to continue the work of EPICA. Several EPICA members are currently working on a project in Greenland with other international partners but there are also plans of returning to Antarctica.  Researchers believe that even older ice can be found in the interior of east Antarctica and that ice cores could be drilled to extend the climate record back up to maybe 1.5 million years. This is particularly interesting as the EPICA records indicate that around 450 000 years ago there was a clear change in the climate system. The climate cycles appear to be less pronounced in the older parts of the record, and longer records could possibly help to confirm this and to help explain the mechanisms behind such phenomena.

The initial investigations to document the existence of such old ice and the search for the best drilling locations will take several years, and any operations will almost certainly mean new logistics and technical challenges. There will also be a need for higher levels of international cooperation and funding as the areas contemplated are located in even more remote and higher lying areas in the interior of Antarctica. However, the success of EPICA – both scientifically, technically and logistically – gives confidence that these challenges can be met.



  • Contacts in DG Research
    Directorate Environment
    (including climate change)
    Tel +32 2 29 68 958/90606.

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