Delving Into Antarctica's Mysteries

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UMD's $8.75 Million Drilling Project to Unlock Secrets in Ice

John Goodge University of Minnesota Duluth

“Antarctica has a sense of romance. It has a certain mystique from stories of the early explorers. The inhospitable climate and vastness makes human life seem insignificant. Yet there is incredible beauty and quiet unlike anywhere else."
Professor John Goodge, UMD Earth and Environmental Sciences

The project will take place in East Antarctica, the planet's coldest and harshest climate. The terrain there looks like the ocean, with swells of white snow and blue ice. John Goodge and his team will spend 15 months over five years, taking core samples two miles into the earth, in search of clues to the earth's atmosphere as it existed a million or more years ago.

Professor John Goodge, in UMD's Earth and Environmental Sciences department, has led scientific expeditions to Antarctica 11 times, but this project is his most extensive. "No one has ever tried drilling into the deep ice like this at either pole," said Goodge. "We will get deeper and older paleoclimate records, possibly a million to a million and a half years old. We are searching for the oldest ice ever found. We're also hopeful we can reach the geological formations at the base of the ice sheet; they've never been reached before."

The team isn't after the ice itself, it's looking for ancient samples of atmospheric gas, volcanic ash and sediment. “As snow falls, pockets of air mix with the snow. As this snow compresses into ice, the air pockets inside become trapped as gas bubbles, and each year's snowfall adds another layer,” Goodge explained. Century after century of falling snow has created the biggest mass of freshwater ice in the world. Thin ash layers can help to date the ice and confirm its old age.

TIMELINE: 2014-2020
The project has a long timeline. A mobile drilling system named RAID is now being constructed and tested in Utah. It's faster technology than the long coring process previously used. The system will be transported by truck and then cargo ship, so drilling field trials in Antarctica can start in December of 2016. In the meantime, airplanes equipped with sensitive gravity, magnetic and laser instruments will fly over the area in a grid pattern to help locate the deepest ice and image the bedrock below. By December 2017 five tractors will begin traversing over snow and ice pulling the drilling system across the East Antarctic ice sheet. Then, in December, January and February, at five sites each for the following five years, the rig will bore through ice all the way to the buried bedrock below. The rig can be operated by a crew of only three drillers. During the nine months between drilling, cores samples will be examined back at UMD and other labs in the U.S.

The funding came from the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation (NSF). Goodge is the lead principal investigator on the project. He studies geotectonic evolution of continental crust in East Antarctica and the origins of the Transantarctic Mountains. Jeff Severinghaus of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, co-principal investigator, conducts research on Antarctic paleoclimate by studying ice cores. Alexandra Isern, program officer at the NSF, oversaw funding of the initial project and coordinated the external technical review of the proposed construction plan.

"This polar region is a canary in the coal mine," said Goodge. "The poles are hypersensitive to changes in the planet’s environment." Goodge's drilling project will show the past concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and provide data on how carbon dioxide influences the polar climate. In addition to past climate, studying the continental geology of Antarctica will help scientists understand supercontinent formation, resource distribution, and stability of the ice sheets.  

The RAID ice field layour, University of Minnesota duluth

Rapid Access Ice Drilling (RAID) system, complete with a drill rig, a mechanical shop and living quarters. Note the drilling fluid and fuel in large flexible pouches.

By Cheryl Reitan, September 2014.

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