Deep under a frozen lake in Siberia, Russia, lies a researcher’s gold: an astounding record of past climates preserved in untouched layers of lake bed sediment. In 2009 an international team of scientists headed to Lake El’gygytgyn (pronounced El’geegitgin). They perched specialized drilling equipment atop the icy lake surface and drilled down. At the bottom of the lake as much as a quarter mile (1,312 feet) of sediment awaited them atop the site of a monster meteorite impact. That sediment, withdrawn in cores and shipped to labs in Germany for close scrutiny, represents a continuous record of past Arctic conditions going back 3.6 million years. The more complete picture of paleoclimate it forms will help scientists understand how and why Earth’s climate changed in the past, and give them better tools for predicting the future.
An international team of scientists from the United States, Russia, Germany and Austria undertook this geological drilling project as part of the International Continental Drilling Program. The U.S. research team was led by Julie Brigham-Grette of the University of Massachusetts-Amherst and included doctoral student Kenna Wilkie and PolarTREC teacher Tim Martin. The diverse team of scientists faced no easy task- six months of hard work in Northeast Siberia during winter. The team hired converted tanks to pull drilling platforms to the extremely remote lake (62 miles north of the Arctic Circle), chartered temperature-controlled cargo planes to safely move the sediment core samples back to specialized labs, and lived in temporary housing atop ice. It was all so they could collect excellent samples: the longest sediment core samples retrieved from the Arctic region. Their successful expedition showcased international scientific cooperation and provided one-of-a-kind data for the scientific community. The project was funded in part by the National Science Foundation: the NSF Division of Earth Sciences and also the NSF Office of Polar Programs.
While ice cores collected from the Greenland Ice Sheet are long enough to detail about 110,000 years, the sediment cores from Lake El’gygytgyn (El’geegitgin) map 30x more… nearly 3,600,000 years. The undivided core is nearly 1165 feet long (similar to the Empire State Building‘s top floor at 1250 feet). It is an unprecedented time-continuous terrestrial record of Arctic conditions. I31 feet of core is from the warm middle Pliocene era- when there was no permanent sea ice in the Arctic Ocean- which may represent an analog for the climate not-too-distant humans will face.