Scientists at the South Pole are currently digging the first deep ice core samples that have ever been taken in the area. These core samples will provide information about the historical climate, which can then be used to help understand the current climate crisis. The drilling is being carried out over the next two years by the South Pole Ice Core Project, with Murat Aydin of University of California, Irvine as principal investigator.
The drill site is a mere 2.7 kilometers (1.7 miles) away from the South Pole, and this is the first deep ice drilling project to occur south of 82 degrees latitude. While previous expeditions this far south have looked back at the last 3,000 years, the South Pole Ice Core Project crew will be collecting samples that look 40,000 years into the past. The drilling season began in early December and it will continue until the end of January. Even during what is now summer at the South Pole, the extreme temperatures have posed a challenge to the machinery.
“The cold temperatures in the ice, about -50 C, have caused some surprises with drilling since certain aspects of the drill perform differently even than during the test in Greenland at -30 C,” current field lead researcher T.J. Fudge said in a press release.
The incredibly low temperatures that are influencing the functionality of the drilling equipment are what make the location so attractive to the researchers, as the conditions are just right for preserving rare organic molecules and trace gases in the ice’s air bubbles. These can’t be found in ice much further north, because even -30º C is not cold enough to maintain them. These delicate chemicals will help reveal the history of the South Pole’s climate.
“South Pole is part of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, yet is influenced by storms coming across the West Antarctic Ice Sheet,” Fudge explained. “This core will help us figure out how the two sides of Antarctica communicate during climate changes in the past.”
So far, the researchers have drilled 500 meters (a third of a mile) into the ice. Their goal is to reach 700 meters (0.4 miles) by the end of the current drilling season, and hit 1,500 meters (0.9 miles) in the next season. This is not as far as other core samples have been taken; Aydin and Fudge also worked on the core project of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet that extended 3.3 kilometers (2 miles). Because the ice is different in the current location, the researchers are focusing on quality over quantity.
“We’re not just trying to punch through the ice sheet, the most important objective is to bring up the highest-quality ice possible,” commented Aydin.
Because very few people have been to Antarctica, let alone the South Pole, the ice is relatively undisturbed and pristine. There is a layer clouded by ash associated with volcanic eruptions, but the samples are otherwise very clear and should yield a tremendous amount of useful information once the cores are processed.
Though all of the data from the samples will complete the climate record of the South Pole, different labs are interested in different information. For instance, the project’s co-leader, Eric Steig of the University of Washington, will explore historical temperatures based on the isotopes of oxygen that are found. Fudge, on the other hand, is looking for incredibly rare gases which would indicate previous plant life.
“The South Pole is one of the very few places in Antarctica that has not warmed up in the past 50 years,” Steig explained. “That’s interesting, and needs to be better understood.”