Work begins on million year ice core drill

Two men inside a large tent with an ice core drill
Setting up the drill during the Aurora Basin North ice core project in 2013 (Photo: Tony Fleming)
Two men at a lathe
Work has started on a high-tech ice drill that Antarctic scientists will deploy in their quest for the million year ice core – dubbed one of the holy grails of climate science. 

The Australian Antarctic Program is leading an ambitious project to search for the Earth’s longest continuous ice core climate record – more than a million years – from deep inside the Antarctic ice sheet.

Engineers at the Australian Antarctic Division today began work on the drill head, the first in a series of components for a machine capable of extracting ice cores from 3000 metres beneath the ice.

Million Year Ice Core Project Lead, Tim Lyons, said the drill was being machined and assembled at the Australian Antarctic Division headquarters in Tasmania, with input from other polar programs.

“This component is critically important for the ice drill’s stability, and one of the most important pieces of the whole assembly as the drill makes its descent deep into the ice,” said Mr Lyons.

“The drill will be operating for months at a time at depths of up to three kilometres and in temperatures below minus 30 degrees, which means reliability and precision are key.”

“Our aim is to produce a drill that can recover high quality ice cores day after day, and hopefully reach the bottom of Antarctic ice sheet over a four-to-five year period.”

“It’s not something you can just buy off the shelf, but we are fortunate to have a team of skilled people to machine and fabricate it here at the Australian Antarctic Division.” 

“We also benefit from the fact that the international ice drilling community shares designs and techniques, and we are building on and sharing our experiences with other drilling nations,” said Mr Lyons.

Retrieving a million year ice core is one of the key scientific priorities announced as part of the Australian Antarctic Strategy and 20 Year Action Plan launched in 2016.

Ancient atmospheric information obtained from the ice core samples will provide a window into a period in history when a major shift took place in the Earth’s climate system, and when the regular pacing ice ages gradually slowed.

The equipment and accommodation facilities required for the project will be transported from Casey research station to Dome C using Australia’s new traverse capability, which is being developed in parallel with the Million Year Ice Core project. 

The first expedition is planned to depart Australia’s Casey research station in early 2021 and set up a mobile research station 1,200 kilometres inland.