Australia has opened a new chapter on Antarctic science after completing the first journey to the site of the Million Year Ice Core and collecting the first 200 years of core.

The success of the 2,300 km round trip maintains the Australian Antarctic Program’s position as a key player in the global scientific effort for the knowledge held by the deepest Antarctic ice.

The extraordinary scientific quest began on December 23, with a team of 10 people leaving Casey research station for Little Dome C, nearly 1,200 kilometres away.

Moving in a convoy of five modified tractor trains pulling a mobile station on sleds, they racked up more than 2,300 km traversing across previously untravelled icy terrain.

Blizzards, temperatures to −44°C and hardened snow dunes known as sastrugi, were just a few of the challenges that stood in the team’s way and put the tractor trains and traverse capabilities to the test.

Little Dome C is the site of the Million Year Ice Core – a remote summit which holds some of the world’s oldest ice.

This project is one of the most important Antarctic science quests ever undertaken by Australia and will provide new information to test climate models and resolve long-standing questions about the timing of ice ages.

This summer the team successfully proved a safe path to the site while testing tractors and traverse machinery all required to transport people and equipment.

Scientists collected the first ‘shallow’ ice cores – ice from the surface down several metres that holds important initial information on snow chemistry.

These cores will be flown back to Australia later this month, increasing our knowledge on the best way to safely transport the precious cold cargo.

Teamwork success

Next summer will see drilling begin to retrieve an ice core more than a million years old to an ultimate depth of 2.8 km. It’s hoped the team will extract the first 120 metres of ice.

Other major activities will include establishing a tent to house the custom-made drill and the inland station.

Australian Antarctic Division Glaciologist Dr Lenneke Jong said four ‘shallow’ cores taken from the snow surface would be loaded with frozen data.

“This opens a new chapter on Antarctic science and reinforces our ability to reach into remote depths of the Antarctic continent for science and knowledge,” Dr Jong said.

“These cores range from six to seven metres long and cover roughly two hundred years of snowfall.

“They’re our first look at snow chemistry and climate data at the site.

“By taking these cores now we’re able to also test temperature and stress experienced by the ice cores in the transport chain back to Hobart.

“This will help us build a secure cold chain for this precious deeper ice.”

Australian Antarctic Division (AAD) Traverse Field Leader Sharon Labudda said reaching the destination for million-year drilling was a huge accomplishment.

“Little Dome C isn’t just far away, it’s 3,230 metres above sea level at high altitude, so include that with blizzards and you have a very slow journey,” Ms Labudda said.

“The mobile station has everything to support life, including heating, kitchen and sleeping spaces as well as medical facilities.

“They’ve been specifically designed to withstand temperatures below −50 degrees and it was great to test them in the real conditions.”

About the Million Year Ice Core project

Little Dome C, is 3,230 m above sea level. From the summit scientists will drill down around 2.8 km into the ice to retrieve ice cores reaching over a million years back into the history of Earth and its climate.

Air bubbles trapped in the ice cores will be studied to improve scientific understanding of the stability of the climate system over the past million years – and help to make predictions for the future. In particular, it will help answer why the ice age cycle changed around a million years ago from a regular 41,000-year cycle to an ice age every 100,000 years.

Traverse journey timeline

December 23: Traverse departs Casey research station.

December 25 Christmas Day: The team sit down for Christmas dinner of roast turkey and pudding cooked in the mobile traverse kitchen.

January 1: The team passes the half way point.

January 11: Arrival at Little Dome C.

January 12: The first ice cores retrieved from the area by Australian scientists.

January 13: Traverse team visits their European neighbours at Concordia Station 30 kilometres away to retrieve Australian project cargo flown there last year.

January 17: A Basler plane equipped with skis, lands at Little Dome C to pick up ice cores and a glaciologist to transport back to Casey research station.

January 20: Traverse team departs Little Dome C.

February 11: The team returns to Casey research station.

Traverse journey fast facts

  • Field team: 10 people
  • Number of tractors: 5
  • Snow groomers: 2
  • 17 sleds carrying a sleeper van, fuel, food, a generator, workshop and kitchen
  • Ice cores retrieved: 4
  • Kilometres covered: more than 2,300 km
  • Coldest temperature: −44 degrees

Well done to the traverse team:

    • Traverse Leader: Sharon Labudda
    • Dieso/Operators: Gavin Lind, Damien Beloin, Jose Campos, Chris Wilkinson
    • Glaciologist: Lenneke Jong
    • Sparkie: Ryan Kunst
    • Engineers: Lötter Kock and Matt Wright
    • Doctor: Robert Dickson