September 30, 2002
Scientists meet at UCSC to discuss plans for
a fast, mobile drilling system for polar research
By Tim Stephens
Since the 1960s, scientists have been drilling through the thick ice
sheets that cover Antarctica and Greenland, pulling out ice cores that
have yielded climate records covering the past 420,000 years of Earth's
|Stationary drill rigs like this
one at Siple Dome in Antarctica stay in one place for years to recover
ice cores. Researchers hope to use a faster, mobile drilling system
to get other kinds of samples and data. Photo:
National Science Foundation
Now researchers from a variety of disciplines want to deploy a new
kind of drilling system that will enable them to recover a broader range
of samples and data from beneath the polar ice.
In a workshop this week at UCSC, an interdisciplinary group of scientists
will explore the possibilities for a fast, mobile drilling system to
study what lies beneath the massive Antarctic ice sheets. The workshop,
"Interdisciplinary polar research based on fast ice-sheet drilling
(FASTDRILL)," will take place October 4-6.
It will bring together about 50 polar scientists studying Antarctic
geology and history, ice-sheet dynamics, life in subglacial lakes, and
related topics. NASA scientists who want to use Antarctica as a testing
ground for future explorations of ice on Mars and Europa will also attend
Almost all of the polar drilling done so far has used stationary drill
rigs that stay in the same place for years to recover a series of ice
cores. With recent advances in drilling technology, however, a more
versatile drill rig should be feasible, said workshop organizer Slawek
Tulaczyk, an assistant professor of Earth sciences.
"With a fast and mobile drilling system, we hope to get access
to all of the scientific mysteries hidden beneath a couple of miles
of ice," Tulaczyk said. "The new drill rig would open a whole
new world of scientific opportunities for penetration of subglacial
environments and for subglacial sampling of rocks and lakes."
Scientists would like to use the new system to study the geology of
the land beneath the ice; to investigate conditions at the base of ice
streams and their effects on the movement of the ice; to measure geothermal
heat flow beneath the ice; to detect life in subglacial lakes and deep
ice; and to pursue a variety of other applications.
"There are promising technologies for doing this--our engineering
colleagues tell us there probably are not technological barriers. But
it hasn't been done before, so one objective of the workshop is to match
scientists' needs and expectations with the existing technology,"
Scientists and engineers interested in polar biology, geology, geophysics,
glaciology, paleoclimatology, ice-drilling technology, exobiology, and
other related disciplines will participate in the workshop. The director
of the National Science Foundation's Office of Polar Programs, Karl
Erb, is also expected to attend.
Scientists studying ice dynamics and glaciology are especially interested
in looking at the processes at the base of the ice streams, vast rivers
of ice that flow through the ice sheets. Tulaczyk, a glaciologist, would
like to investigate an area known as the grounding line, where the ice
sheets come in contact with the ocean, extending out over the water
as floating ice shelves. The melting rates at the interface between
the ice sheets and the ocean are surprisingly high, he said.
"It's a mystery to us how the ice could be melting so fast, and
it's important to understand because this could be a mechanism for very
rapid changes in the ice sheet, particularly if global warming increases
ocean temperature in the near future," Tulaczyk said.
For geologists, the new drilling system would enable regional sampling
of the rocks beneath the ice. Only about 2 percent of Antarctica is
free of ice, and many key questions about the continent's geology remain
Biologists have also become interested in what may lie beneath the
Antarctic ice. They have discovered microorganisms living in the ice,
and are keen to explore subglacial lakes, such as Lake Vostok. This
research requires drilling technology that would enable scientists to
obtain samples from deep in the ice without contaminating the unique
"We are at a point where several disciplines have come to the conclusion
that they need a new tool in order to start a new stage of discovery
in Antarctica," Tulaczyk said. "I hope that this workshop
will be the first step on the way to a complete exploration of Antarctica."
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