Scientists drill to record depths in West Antarctica

Understanding how slippery the sediment underneath these glaciers.

The BEAMISH team has drilled over two kilometres to the base of the Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica. Credit: British Antarctic Survey
The BEAMISH team has drilled over two kilometres to the base of the Rutford Ice Stream in West Antarctica. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

Scientists for the first time have drilled over two kilometers through the ice sheet in West Antarctica using hot water. This study will help them see how the region will react to a warming climate.

A team of 11 scientists is working on the Rutford Ice Stream for the last 12 weeks in freezing temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius. On Tuesday 8 January, following a 63-hour continuous round-the-clock drilling operation, the team broke through to the sediment 2152 meters below the surface.

Lead scientist Dr. Andy Smith from British Antarctic Survey (BAS), who is still working on the Rutford Ice Stream, says:

“I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we’ve finally achieved our goal. There are gaps in our knowledge of what’s happening in West Antarctica and by studying the area where the ice sits on soft sediment we can understand better how this region may change in the future and contribute to global sea-level rise.”

The team has been working at the BEAMISH camp in West Antarctica since November 2018. Credit: British Antarctic Survey
The team has been working at the BEAMISH camp in West Antarctica since November 2018. Credit: British Antarctic Survey

A series of instruments were bolstered through the borehole which will record water pressure, ice temperature and deformation inside the ice around it.

The project dubbed as BEAMISH has been 20 years in the planning and was endeavored in 2004 without progress.

The group has now drilled two holes (the second finished on 22 January) and plan to work on the ice until mid-February 2019. Further work will currently proceed at a second site a couple of kilometers away.

Dr. Keith Makinson, a physical oceanographer at BAS, says: “We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica‘s glaciers. What we’re trying to understand is how slippery the sediment underneath these glaciers is, and therefore how quickly they might flow off the continent into the sea. This will help us determine future sea level rise from West Antarctica with more certainty.”