Scientists use hot water to drill record 2km hole in Antarctic ice sheet

4 weeks ago
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A team of scientists and engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have set a record by drilling two kilometres deep through the continent’s western ice sheet using hot water.

The data gathered by the research mission will provide understanding about how the region is likely to respond to a warming climate.

The 11-person team spent 12 weeks in temperatures which plunged as low as -30C to dig through the Rutford Ice Stream.

Their work was beset with difficulties beyond the cold. As well as storms, the team had to contend with snow blanketing their entire camp – leaving them with no choice but to manually remove it all before starting again.

After a mammoth 63-hour drilling operation, the research mission finally reached the sediment of the continent on Tuesday 8 January, just over 2.1km beneath the surface.

Footage from the record hole is unavailable, but a video released by BAS shows a similar hole drilled with the same equipment two years ago which stretches 900m beneath the Western Antarctic surface.

The BEAMISH team has drilled over two kilometres to the base of the Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica. Pic: BAS
Image: The BEAMISH team drilled over two kilometres to the base of Antarctica. Pic: BAS

The project – named BEAMISH (Bed Access, Monitoring and Ice Sheet History) – will see a string of instruments fed through the borehole to record water pressure, ice temperature, and deformations within the ice.

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It has taken 20 years of planning to get the project successfully completed and was first attempted in 2004 without success.

The lead scientist behind the project, Dr Andy Smith, said: “I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we’ve finally achieved our goal.

“There are gaps in our knowledge of what’s happening in West Antarctica, and by studying the area where the ice sits on soft sediment we can understand better how this region may change in the future and contribute to global sea-level rise.”

The team has been working at the BEAMISH camp in West Antarctica since November 2018. Pic: BAS
Image: The team has been working at the BEAMISH camp in West Antarctica since November 2018. Pic: BAS

Dr Keith Makinson, a physical oceanographer at BAS, added: “We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica’s glaciers.

“What we’re trying to understand is how slippery the sediment underneath these glaciers is, and therefore how quickly they might flow off the continent into the sea.

“This will help us determine future sea level rise from West Antarctica with more certainty.”

The studies comprising BEAMISH aim to improve future predictions of West Antarctica by understanding how ice flows and the history of the ice sheets.

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