Australian Antarctic Division unveils mega ice core drill

Written by Carla Howarth

A circular drill head photographed against a black background

PHOTO: The drill head that will burrow 3 kilometres below the surface in Antarctica. (Supplied: Simon Payne/Australian Antarctic Division)

Technicians have developed a drill that will plunge 3 kilometres down into an Antarctic ice cap to extract the world’s oldest continuous ice core, revealing what the weather was like 1 million years ago.

The Australian Antarctic Division’s (AAD) 9-metre ice core drill will be able to extract ice at a remote field camp 1,200km inland in Antarctica.

The drill — made from specialised stainless steel, aluminium bronze and titanium — will be able to extract cores up to 3 metres at a time. It will withstand temperatures of -55 degrees Celsius along the way.

Dr Tas van Ommen, the senior principal research scientist with the AAD, said ice cores were time capsules of past atmosphere.

“We see in the ice, tiny bubbles that are trapped between snow flakes in the ice as it gets buried,” he said.

“We want to get that ice, analyse those time capsules and understand what [carbon dioxide] did through that period around a million years ago when the climate was changing.”

Using the past to shed light on the future

One million years ago, Homo erectus was walking the Earth and Australia was home to megafauna such as the rhinoceros-sized ‘wombat’ Diprotodon.

At the same time, the Earth’s climate made a shift from a 40,000-year ice age and interglacial cycle, to a 100,000-year cycle.

Dr van Ommen said the ice would help scientists find out why.

“This [research] will allow us to actually look at how the climate changed through that period and how in particular large changes in the climate system worked,” Dr van Ommen said.

“We can then apply that knowledge to understanding how the climate’s going to change in the future, which is a key question for us.”

The construction of the drill began in March. It was developed using European and US technology, along with Australian innovation.

Drilling to begin in 2021

AAD director Kim Ellis said scientists would travel deep inland with tractor-trains and a mobile research station weighing 500 tonnes.

“We are sending men and women into some of the most remote, extreme environments on Earth,” he said.

“It is a really challenging adventure.

“These stations will travel and stop each night and will use special crevasse detection technology to ensure it’s a safe trip getting in there.”

The tractors will be deployed to Antarctica this year, before scientists begin using the drill from 2021.

Federal Environment Minister Sussan Ley said the project was part of a $45 million Government commitment to Antarctic science.

“As we know, the Antarctic drives global weather systems,” she said.

“We learn so much from our Antarctic science.”



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Comments (1)

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    Peter C


    ““This [research] will allow us to actually look at how the climate changed through that period and how in particular large changes in the climate system worked,” Dr van Ommen said.”

    Well I very much doubt that. The drill cores contain bubbles of gas, which might give an estimate of atmospheric composition back then, and the thickness of the layers, if they can be discerned, might give precipitation in the Antarctic, but that is about it.

    Even the atmospheric composition is unlikely to be correct, as explained in this article.

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