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Shaldril Coring, Antarctic

Fugro Seacore was contracted by a group of American scientists to conduct the drilling operations for the Shaldril project.

This scientific expedition involved collecting and examining core samples from beneath the ice on the Antarctic Peninsula to evaluate climate change. The Shaldril project in the Antarctic is just one of the Scientific Coring Projects Seacore has carried out in the past 12 months. Involvement in this work has already meant working as far afield as the Lomonosov Ridge in the Arctic and Lake Malawi in Africa.

Since the chosen vessel Nathanial B Palmer was not built with drilling in mind, Seacore’s design engineers had the additional challenge of designing a rig within a very restricted deck space. The construction of a new Marine Drill the R-50 commenced in August 2004 with trials in Gweek in late December and it was shipped in early January 2005 to Punta Arenas, Chile, where it was re-constructed onboard. The vessel sailed to Antarctica from Chile on March 31st. The objective of this first SHALDRIL cruise was two-fold. Firstly, scientists simply wanted to demonstrate the feasibility of drilling from an ice-breaker platform into the Antarctic continental shelf. Secondly, they wanted to obtain cores from the Antarctic which had not been sampled previously. These core samples would have immense scientific value and would be used to study climate change. An understanding of how the area has changed over the longer term will allow more recent changes in climate to be put into a broader context of natural versus man-made changes.

Seacore’s Project Manager Andy Frazer said of the location “This is the most unforgiving, hostile, harsh and also the most beautiful place I have ever worked in".

The first SHALDRIL hole was drilled in Maxwell Bay, off King George Island, one of the South Shetland Islands. This site was chosen because it provided some protection from severe winds and seas and very little threat from sea ice. The selection was also driven by the desire to look for warm episodes similar to those occurring today in the region. From the first day of drilling, concerns about maintaining position while on site were put to rest as the ship held position in winds of up to 30 knots. A sub-bottom depth of 108 metres with approximately 81% recovery was achieved and preliminary examination of the core shows a fascinating record of prehistoric changes.

The Maxwell Bay site was followed by attempts to drill in five other locations around the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. While none of the other sites brought as much success as that first site, each taught several lessons about station keeping with the vessel, drilling through glacial sediment, and sampling the target strata, which should result in more success for SHALDRIL II, scheduled for February and March 2006. Ashley Lowe, the Marine Project Co-ordinator for the US Antarctic Programme commented, “We can not say enough about how great the Seacore drill crew performed. Their skill at operating and troubleshooting the rig was impressive, as was the amount of time and energy they put into their jobs. It was a pleasure to work with and get to know each of them.”

Scientists on board the vessel believe SHALDRIL I was a resounding success. A variety of obstacles, including storms and extensive sea ice, could not have been expected but, then again, April is not the best time of year to be drilling in Antarctica. What is important is that the ship, the R50 rig and the crew performed magnificantly under a range of adverse conditions.