Weather Forecast


UMD professor will drill for ancient ice in Antarctica

John Goodge

Work in Antarctica planned by researchers –including a University of Minnesota Duluth professor – could lead to more accurate predictions of global warming and how damaging it might be.

That work will be possible thanks to a nearly $9 million grant from the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation, recently awarded to a team led by UMD professor John Goodge. The award – one of the largest of its type ever received by the university – is meant to construct a drilling system that will be able to bore deep into the ice sheets of Antarctica.

A main goal is to find out how old the ice is; so far, other laborious attempts that have taken several years and millions of dollars have determined an age of up to 800,000 years. But researchers hope to find evidence far older than that, possibly ranging from 1 million to about 1.5 million years old. The new Rapid Access Ice Drill will allow scientists to make several bore holes in one several-month season – a feat never done before. The idea is to bypass the current long coring process used to determine age and replace it with new, faster technology.

Researchers will date the ice roughly 2 miles down using laser-imaging tools to see if they’ve discovered the age they are seeking, and also take small samples of ice and rock using diamond cutting tools lowered on a wire.

Goodge, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at UMD, is the principal investigator of the project.

“What’s amazing to me is the drill pipe is 3 inches in diameter,” he said. “So, think about taking this long, spaghetti noodle of a drill pipe that’s 2 miles long … and trying to control that.”

Goodge’s research deals with geology. For him, the drill will collect bedrock samples to better learn how Antarctica fits with other continents. Another goal is to study the conditions between the ice and rock. No one knows how stable the two are in terms of their connection to each other, Goodge said.

“The East Antarctica sheet (where they will drill) is the biggest mass of freshwater ice on the planet,” he said, and no one knows what its current state might represent in terms of climate change.

The project will be the “flagship activity” for the National Science Foundation’s Antarctic research for several years, said Alexandra Isern, formerly the program officer for the foundation’s Antarctic Earth science division, who was involved in coordinating the review of the project. She now works in a different division.

“The scientific results that will come from using the drill, I think, will be very high-priority,” she said. “It’s our equivalent of a moon shot: our little window below the ice sheet we’ve never had before.”

The new grant adds to a $1.3 million award that the foundation gave UMD and Goodge’s team in 2013 to design the drill. UMD’s total amount of sponsored research last year, including money that went to the campus’s medical school and the pharmacy college, amounted to nearly $12 million. The $9 million grant will be included in the coming year’s total.

Construction of the drilling system already has begun, and initial field tests are scheduled for early 2015. Trials in Antarctica are scheduled for Antarctica’s summer – October through February – in 2016-17.

The drilling system will be transported from California on a cargo ship that travels to the icy continent once a year. Once there, it will take five tractors to pull its parts to various destinations, with a team of 10-12 people. It takes a crew of only three to operate it.

Hunting down the oldest ice is a long process, and that’s why the drill is exciting, said co-principal investigator Jeff Severinghaus, professor of geosciences at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego, who is researching the ice.

“It takes a kind of prospecting,” he said, “where you rapidly drill in lots and lots of places to find that one sweet spot where the really old ice is preserved.”

Once the drill is operational, the team will use laser technology to record the layers of ice to determine their age. It’s similar to counting the rings of a tree to do the same, Goodge said.

If researchers do indeed find the old ice they are seeking, it would set the stage for others to begin a coring project; some already have been done in Greenland and Antarctica and have taken years.

“The ice is a great archive of past climate conditions,” said Goodge, who has been to Antarctica 11 times. “And one of (the drill’s) uses is a reconnaissance tool to find this ancient ice. And then other groups can come in and go, ‘Aha. Now we know where we can go to get these really old climate records.’ “

Ultimately, the research is about how much carbon dioxide influences the climate, Severinghaus said, noting ice cores contain air bubbles, which tell researchers the past concentration of the greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. He said current projections of carbon dioxide’s influence are imprecise by about 50 percent. Researchers are aiming to narrow that range and help accurately predict future temperatures.

“We need to know how much the world is going to warm in the next hundred years and how damaging that warming is going to be,” he said. “Those are things we can learn by looking at when the last time (carbon dioxide) rose.”