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A researcher examines an ice core.
Photo Credit: Kendrick Taylor/WAIS Divide Web site
Rebecca Anderson, a scientist at the Desert Research Institute, examines an ice core. Researchers will be able to produce an annual climate record for the last 40,000 years thanks to the high accumulation rate where they have chosen to drill the ice core.

Big operation

This will be the second of three drilling seasons for the project, which is supported by the largest field camp in Antarctica, about 1,600 kilometers from the U.S. Antarctic Program’s External U.S. government site logistical hub, McMurdo Station External U.S. government site. About 90 support personnel passed through the camp last year, with a steady population of about 40 to 60 people, including scientists and drillers.

The camp was established during the 2005-06 field season. Its facilities include a communications tent, medical tent, galley tent, a recreational and wash tent, three Jamesways (MASH-type buildings), mechanics shop, generator module, science tent, and the drilling and core-handling arch built at the site. The camp also uses several pieces of heavy equipment such as a 953 Caterpillar, a Tucker Sno-Cat, a Pisten Bully and a Caterpillar D4 Bulldozer.

“It’s a big industrial facility,” Taylor said.

Ice Core and Drill Services (ICDS) External Non-U.S. government site, out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison External Non-U.S. government site, is responsible for the design, fabrication, testing, and operation of the deep-coring drill. After a successful test in Summit Greenland in 2006, operators fired up the drill for the first time in Antarctica last season.

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“They just turned it on, and it worked — which was amazing,” Taylor said, chuckling.

The season went well, he said, though the project fell short of its goal, drilling down 580 meters. Poor weather — one of the attractions of the site — and other factors conspired to shorten the amount of productive drilling time.

“Everybody did their job; just a combination of things slowed us down,” Taylor said. “Whenever anything goes wrong, it comes out of the drill time.”

The team faces an even tighter, time-sensitive schedule this year. Budget cuts by the NSF have shortened the drill season, and the goal is to drill through about 700 or 800 meters of so-called brittle ice. The air bubbles in brittle ice are so compressed that pressure is intense enough to shatter the core once it reaches the surface, Taylor explained.

Location of the WAIS Divide camp in West Antarctica.
Photo Credit: WAIS Divide Web site
Location of the WAIS Divide field camp in West Antarctica.

“It starts breaking apart in front of your eyes,” he said. “Our big goal is to get through the brittle ice this year because the brittle ice sits on site for one year. It’s so brittle we can’t even ship it back [right away].”

The drill is designed to be as gentle as possible, and will use special drill bits through the brittle zone, according to Charles Bentley, principal investigator for ICDS and a scientist who has been to Antarctica every decade since the 1950s. [See a profile on Bentley: Practically home.]

Past about 1,400 or 1,500 meters, the trapped air will have been squeezed into the ice crystals rather than into separate air bubbles, so the ice won’t be as brittle, he explained during a previous interview before visiting the WAIS Divide camp in January.

“It no longer shatters that easily,” he said.

Taylor said he is optimistic the drillers can get through the brittle zone in the few short weeks of scheduled drilling, an around-the-clock operation. “We should get a quicker start because the facility is in better shape, the drill is already up,” he said. “If we don’t get through the brittle ice, it really messes up the measurements back home in terms of the laboratories being fully occupied.”

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