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Scientists read Antarctic mud for climate change insight

A four-inch core sample is a chapter of ancient history in which a Neanderthal amoeba or a worm can thicken the plot for researchers.

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Land Grab: Scientists at the Antarctic Drilling Project's stratigraphy lab use toothpick to stake claims on petrified mud that they want to study.

Douglas Fox

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With summers both intense and ephemeral, life here is a race against the revolving seasons. Summer daylight never ceases at this US research base on Ross Island, just off the coast of Antarctica. The sun runs endless laps around the sky, and for those who live here, work never stops.

This blending of day and night centers on the 24-hour stratigraphy lab. Inside the nondescript metal building perched on stilts, geologists from around the world indulge, of all things, their collective love of petrified mud. Two shifts of scientists work around the clock examining a 4-inch-wide column of stone – a new section of which is delivered daily from a drill that, by the end of the season, will have penetrated three-quarters of a mile into the ocean bed.

This stone began as mud that settled on the ocean floor and curdled over eons into rock. From it, the scientists are reading geologic tea leaves between 14 million and 19 million years old: fossils and chemical signatures that provide a record of past climates – and show how Antarctica's ice sheets responded to climate swings.

In doing so, they hope to predict how well Antarctica's ice will withstand rising temperatures in the century to come.

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The two crews of scientists converge at 8:30 each morning: One has worked all night beneath the hum of fluorescent lights, and the other has just risen to pick up where the vampires left off.

Their one-hour meeting consists of a slide show of discoveries made overnight – worms petrified in million-year death throes, fossilized sea-shells, microscopic diatoms, and bits of gravel – all suspended in the core.

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