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Reef expedition to unlock climate change's past

Published: 9:33PM Wednesday February 03, 2010 Source: AAP

To Australians and dive aficionados everywhere it's a natural wonder. But beneath the Great Barrier Reef's beauty, a team of scientists believe, lies the key to uncovering the long-term history of climate change.

Academics from across the globe will set off from the north Queensland city of Townsville next week on a 45-day journey they hope will provide insight into the past behaviour of climate change stretching back to the last ice age.

The expedition is being funded by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program, made up of scientific funding from the United States, Europe, Japan and several smaller partners, including Australia.

Expedition co-chief scientist Dr Jody Webster, from Sydney University, said the team would drill for samples of fossilised reefs, which will then be used to answer questions about historic ice shelf melting and its effect on sea levels as well as on reefs.

"We will learn an incredible amount, this will be truly exciting, groundbreaking stuff I believe," Webster said.

"The data from this expedition will have implications for scientists working in a range of different fields."

He said the information gathered would be particularly useful for future modelling on the effects of global warming.

"There is a lot of uncertainty right now about how stable the ice sheets are and one of the ways we can hopefully prove our estimates of that is to go back into the past and see how those ice sheets have behaved," he said.

"From that, we hope we have an improved understanding of how the earth system works, how ice sheets have behaved, how climate has behaved."

Webster said previous drilling expeditions in other locations had shown sea level rises of 15-20 metres over 300-500 years during the last period of deglaciation (glacial melting).

He said the samples could also be used to determine the past behaviour of El Nino and help predict the impact of global warming on the weather pattern.

"There are some models which indicate we will see an increase in the intensity and frequency of El Nino in Australia, but there is a lot of confusion as to what the situation will be in the future," he said.

The samples gathered during the expedition will be taken to Germany where the drill cores will be split and sent to laboratories in several countries.

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