First-ever deep core drilling project underway in Antarctica

Chuck Bednar for redOrbit.com – Your Universe Online

Braving the conditions of the South Pole, researchers from the University of Washington and the University of California, Irvine are in the process of drilling the first-ever deep ice core from that region of Antarctica.

The scientists have been working in around-the-clock daylight and brutally low temperatures as part of a project that will analyze 40,000 years worth of climate history at the South Pole. Called the South Pole Ice Core Project, the National Science Foundation-funded research is expected to drill to a depth of 1,500 meters to collect samples for analysis.

Drilling for the South Pole Ice Core Project is scheduled for 2014-2015 (~700 m / through the Holocene) and 2015-2016 (to 1500 m / 40,000 years), and it will provide the first environmental record of more than 3,000 years ever obtained from latitudes south of 82 degrees.

“The cold temperatures in the ice, about -50 C, have caused some surprises with drilling since certain aspects of the drill perform differently even than during the test in Greenland at -30 C,” T.J. Fudge, a UW postdoctoral researcher involved in the project, said in a statement.

[ Watch the Video: Scientists drilling first deep ice core at the South Pole ]

The drilling is taking place in a location less than two miles away from the South Pole, which the researchers explain is home to thick, uncontaminated layers of ice that may provide valuable new insights into how the climate of Antarctica interacts with the rest of the world.

“South Pole is part of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, yet is influenced by storms coming across the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” said Fudge, who is chief scientist this month. “This core will help us figure out how the two sides of Antarctica communicate during climate changes in the past.”

The period between 40,000 years ago and 20,000 years ago included sudden and dramatic swings in temperature, with warming at the end of the last ice age, the researchers explained. By using a new type of intermediate-depth drill based and a new drilling fluid, they have been able to drill to depths of 1/3 of a mile thus far, and hope to pass 700 meters by the end of the season.

“We’re not just trying to punch through the ice sheet, the most important objective is to bring up the highest-quality ice possible,” said principal investigator Murat Aydin, a UC Irvine researcher who was chief scientist from early November through the end of December.

Once the core is drilled, it will be flown to McMurdo Station, a US Antarctic research center located on the southern tip of Ross Island, in three-foot sections. It will then be transferred to a ship and transported to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, where scientists will gather this summer to process the samples and ship fragments to labs all over the country.

At the University of Washington, project co-leader and Earth and space sciences professor Eric Steig will analyze different types of oxygen molecules in the ice in order to determine its temperature. This research provide a record of climate changes for that region, and could also help evaluate the large-scale climate patterns throughout the Southern Hemisphere.

Meanwhile. Aydin and his UC Irvine colleagues will look at ultra-trace gases from air bubbles trapped in the ice. They are searching for gases that are one in a billion to one in a trillion molecules in the atmosphere, but which provide clues about how productive land-based plants were and how extensive tropical wetlands might have been in the past.

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