Drilling for Ice
Ice cores have been drilled all over Antarctica, but the Allan Hills contain some of the oldest ice ever discovered on Earth. Ice at surface level is about 100,000 years old and gets older as you drill deeper, reaching ages of greater than 2 million years at the bottom.
The ice coring team was a large, interdisciplinary group composed of scientists with expertise in reconstructing Earth’s climate from chemical measurements of the ice and trapped dust and air bubbles. Led by Princeton University professor and geoscientist John Higgins, the team included Austin Carter (Scripps UC-San Diego), Jenna Epifanio (Oregon State University), Jacob Morgan (Scripps UC-San Diego),
Sarah Shackleton (Princeton University), drill operators Tanner Kuhl and Elizabeth Morton (University of Wisconsin-Madison), and USAP Camp Coordinator Anna Zajicek.
Day-to-day operations included an approximately ten-minute repetitive cycle of coring, pinching and then extracting one-meter-long ice cores that were measured, bagged, boxed and logged. The cores were then transported via Twin-Otter aircraft to a dedicated freezer building at McMurdo Station. After a subsequent months-long journey via cargo ship, the cores eventually reached the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colorado, where they now reside in a laboratory, frozen at -20 degrees Celsius.
In May 2020, after returning home from Antarctica, the team anxiously awaited for COVID-19 travel restrictions to be lifted so they can travel to Denver to begin the work of slicing and analyzing the cores.
Ian and I embedded with the team for a single week. In contrast, the science team was scheduled to spend late October through the first week of January coring ice in the Allan Hills — away from their families for Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, Christmas, and New Year’s holidays, living in shared tents pitched on ice with no running water, showers or internet. Despite the taxing circumstances and physicality of the work, the team communally chose to labor six days per week. The team confirmed what I had previously learned about ice scientists — they are bad asses.