Four universities receive NSF grants for scientific drilling of Lake Malawi in East Africa

February 04, 2002

Researchers from four universities have been awarded a $2 million grant through the National Science Foundation's Earth System History (ESH) program to take to the next level the scientific drilling of large lakes for paleoclimate research.

The Global Lake 800 Drilling System (GLAD800) will be deployed to Lake Malawi at the southern end of the East African Rift Valley in a project involving researchers from Syracuse University, the University of Minnesota-Duluth, the University of Rhode Island and the University of Arizona. This recently acquired drilling rig is dedicated to recovering undisturbed scientific cores samples from the bottom of large lakes.

At more than 700 meters in depth and more than seven million years old, Lake Malawi is one of the largest, deepest and oldest lakes on Earth. The archives of paleoclimatic information preserved in its quiet depths, inaccessible until now, hold promise to reveal important new clues concerning the evolution of Earth's climate.

"This is a risky scientific expedition, to be sure," says NSF earth sciences program director David Verardo. "We are moving a new drilling system into a technologically-challenging environment. Lake Malawi is deep and the weather window for drilling operations is short and unforgiving. What spurs us on, however, is the potential scientific payoff in recovering critical baseline data on Earth's climate system that will help us understand the range of natural climate variability. Betting on future climates without such baseline data is like investing in a company's stock without assessing its past performance. It just isn't prudent."

"We believe that Lake Malawi will provide a unique, continuous and high-resolution (annual to decadal) record of past climates in the continental tropics over the last 800,000 years," says Christopher Scholz, an earth scientist at Syracuse University and principal investigator on the project.

Through their research, Scholz and colleagues Thomas Johnson of the University of Minnesota-Duluth, Andrew Cohen and David Dettman of the University of Arizona, and John King of the University of Rhode Island will attempt to understand the links between low-latitude solar insolation and high-latitude ice volume and their effect on tropical climates.

"Understanding how African climate variability may be influenced by longer-term climate variations such as glacialinterglacial wet and dry climate cycles is important to understanding global climate," notes Johnson.

Furthermore, the researchers will use the sediments recovered from Lake Malawi to explore the biological evolution of aquatic organisms in the region over time. "This research will complement ongoing research and educational activities at Lake Tanganyika, where NSF has supported an international science field station for several years," says Cohen of the University of Arizona, co-investigator and director of the Lake Tanganyika field station.

"The GLAD800 is a tremendous tool for international paleoclimate research," says King of the University of Rhode Island. "With this innovative and flexible drilling system, the science community will demonstrate a whole new range of capability for fundamental research in paleoclimatology while stretching the boundaries of exploration for maximum public benefit."
Media contacts:
Cheryl Dybas

Program Contact:
Dave Verardo

National Science Foundation

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