Researchers drill deepest-ever hole into Antarctic ice

This project aims to better understand how the ice sheet is being affected by climate change
antarctic ice Imagine drilling underneath that! It took the scientists of the British Antarctic Survey some time, that's for sure. (© Guido Amrein - Dreamstime.com)


On January 8th, a 63-hour long drilling session (uh, why did writing that just make us think of visiting the dentist?...?!) ended with scientists setting a record for probing into Antarctic ice.

We're talking 2,152 metres (7,060 feet) down! That's over two kilometers, and well over one mile deep.

This depth was reached thanks to a special 'hot water drill', which actually isn't a drill at all. Think of it as a super-charged hose that uses a high-powered jet of heated water to melt through ice at the rate of about 1.7 metres per minute. At least you can understand why it took so long!

And what is the overall purpose of this project?

Feeling a bit BEAMISH

Embed from Getty Images

What's hiding under there? (Getty Embed)

The drill was used by the British Antarctic Survey for a project that they call BEAMISH (Bed Access, Monitoring and Ice Sheet History). In short, the state of Antarctic ice is key to understanding how climate change is affecting the world's oceans. And since the ice sheets are well over a mile thick in places, scientists can't tell how the ice is melting just by looking at the surface. They need to know what is going on below, too!

By drilling down to the bottom of the Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica, researchers hope to gather information about how the ice here is melting, and what that will mean for global sea level. They are also hoping to understand how the ice may have melted in the distant past during other warming periods in Earth's history.

Did you say 'ice stream'?

Yes, we did. We also said "drill down to the bottom of the Rutford Ice Stream". So we thought that we'd end this post by explaining what we mean by that.

Even on a massive object like an ice sheet or glacier that is frozen solid, the ice doesn't stay perfectly still. It slowly creeps toward the shore, eventually falling off in chunks into the sea. An ice stream is not a flowing river. But compared to the ice surrounding it, it moves faster. How quickly are we talking (if you can use that word)? The Rutford Ice Stream's top speed is about 400 metres (1,300 feet) per year. At that speed, the drive home from work for the average American (25 kilometres or 16 miles) would take 65 years. So yeah, not fast!

But anyway, that's what an ice stream is and why you can drill to the bottom of one. Good luck, BEAMISH. We're excited to see what you discover under that Antarctic ice!


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