Press release

European ice core project EPICA receives the European Union Descartes Prize for Collaborative, Transnational Research

[12. March 2008] 

The research project EPICA (European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica) is one of this year’s winners of the Descartes Prize for Research awarded by the European Union on the 12th of March in Brussels. The Descartes Prize for Research is endowed by 1.36 million Euro in total and is awarded to up to four European teams each year for outstanding transnational projects in natural sciences and humanities. The EPICA project - carried out by twelve partners from ten European nations - was successful in retrieving past climate records of great impact for the assessment of our current climate change. Temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations over up to the last 800,000 years could be measured. Furthermore, the ice cores allowed to study in detail the coupling of the northern and southern hemisphere.

The results of the EPICA project summarize the work of scientist from ten European nations including Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K. and, their expertise in different branches of ice core research and glaciology. The German partner within EPICA is the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in the Helmholtz Association, which was responsible for the deep drilling in Dronning Maud Land as well as for many of the analyses of this core. Prof. Heinrich Miller, deputy director of the Alfred Wegener Institute coordinated the EPICA project under the umbrella of the European Science Foundation (ESF). EPICA is funded by national contributions of the participating countries and by the European Union.

„Only in such a close collaboration between all European working groups has it been possible to carry out such a large-scale project logistically and scientifically“, says Dr. Hubertus Fischer, glaciologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, who coordinated the EPICA application for the Descartes Prize. „Especially for young scientists and students EPICA is a unique possibility to perform top-level research together with colleagues from all over Europe and to establish their own scientific career. With the Descartes Prize we can intensify this tight networking and the close collaboration even further”, adds Dr. Fischer.

To this end two deep ice core had to be drilled through the 3000 meters thick East Antarctic Ice Sheet over several years in remote regions far from any coastal research stations. Drilling operations took place under extreme climatic conditions at Dome C at 75°06'S, 123°24'E with a mean annual temperature of minus 54.5 °C. The second drilling was carried out by the Alfred Wegener Institute in Dronning Maud Land at 75°00'S, 0°01'E and a mean annual temperature of minus 44.6°C. After retrieval, the ice cores were shipped in frozen state to Bremerhaven, where they were cut and analyzed in the various European laboratories.

Based on the EPICA ice cores it was possible to measure temperature and precipitation rates, atmospheric aerosol composition, solar activity, the flux of extraterrestrial dust onto the Earth as well as atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations of the past. The results show, that the concentrations of the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide have never been as high over the last 650,000 years as today, when human activities artificially emit those gases into the atmosphere. The carbon dioxide level in the past is tightly coupled to temperature changes in the Antarctic, respectively the Southern Ocean. Among others, warm periods prior to 450,000 years before present exhibited lower temperatures and greenhouse gas concentrations than our current warm period, the Holocene. Also the temperatures during the last ice age show this connection, where slower climate changes in the Antarctic are tightly coupled with rapid climate shifts in the North Atlantic region. This connection is caused by the oceanic heat transport between the North and South Atlantic.

EPICA is one of the core projects within the Research programme „Marine, Coastal and Polar Systems“ of the Alfred Wegener Institute in the research field “Earth and Environment“ of the Helmholtz Association.

Bremerhaven, 12th of March 2008
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Notes for editors:
Your contact persons at the Alfred Wegener Institute are Dr. Hubertus Fischer (phone: +49/471/4831-1174; email: and Prof. Heinrich Miller (phone: +49/471/4831-1210; email: Your contact person in the public relations department is Dr. Ude Cieluch (phone: +49/471/4831-2008; email:

The Alfred Wegener Institute carries out research in the Arctic and Antarctic as well as in the high and mid latitude oceans. The institute coordinates German polar research and makes available to international science important infrastructure, e.g. the research ice breaker “Polarstern” and research stations in the Arctic and Antarctic. AWI is one of 15 research centres within the Helmholtz-Association, Germany’s largest scientific organization.


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Das Institut

Das Alfred-Wegener-Institut forscht in den Polarregionen und Ozeanen der mittleren und hohen Breiten. Als eines von 19 Forschungszentren der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft koordiniert es Deutschlands Polarforschung und stellt Schiffe wie den Forschungseisbrecher Polarstern und Stationen für die internationale Wissenschaft zur Verfügung.