Researchers reach record depths in Antarctica in bid to find vital data

24 Jan 2019

The British Antarctic Survey hole is more than 2km deep. Image: BAS

In order to predict what will happen to our planet in the future, researchers must dig down to record depths in Antarctic ice.

Some kids just love digging big holes but, for a team of scientists and engineers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) research station, a recent hole is considered crucial for our understanding of how the region will respond to a warming climate.

The research group announced that it has successfully drilled to record depths of more than 2km into the Rutford Ice Stream located in West Antarctica. The 11-person team has spent the last 12 weeks working in temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius to fire hot water continuously down the hole to drill further into the ice.

Finally, after a 63-hour round-the-clock drilling operation, the team broke through to the sediment 2,152 metres below the surface. With the hole dug, the team lowered a string of instruments down into it to record water pressure, ice temperature and deformation within the ice around it.

Search for slippery sediment

The project, nicknamed ‘Beamish’, has been in the works for 20 years now, with a 2004 attempt ending with failure.

Safe to say, mission lead scientist Dr Andy Smith was relieved when they finally reached the bottom. “I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we’ve finally achieved our goal,” he said.

“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 expects that, along with a second hole completed a few kilometres away on 22 January, it will be working on the ice until the middle of February.

Speaking further about the research, BAS physical oceanographer Dr Keith Makinson said: “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.”

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic