Million year ice core drill at the cutting edge

23 September 2019

Australian Antarctic Program technicians are at the cutting-edge of a unique project to unlock our climate future, by discovering what changed the world one million years ago.

The technicians are putting the finishing touches on an ice core drill ‘head’ that will eventually bore 3000 metres into the Antarctic ice cap to extract the world’s oldest continuous ice core, withstanding temperatures of minus 55 degrees along the way.

The project is part of a $45 million Federal Government commitment to maintaining Australia’s place at the forefront of Antarctic science by developing our capability to travel deep inland with tractor-trains and a mobile research station.

Around one million years ago, the Earth’s climate made a shift from a 40,000 year cycle of recurring ice ages to one every 100,000 years, for reasons that aren’t understood.

It was a time when homo-erectus was walking the Earth and Australia was home to megafauna such as the rhinoceros sized ‘wombat’ Diprotodon.

Air bubbles trapped deep in Antarctica’s ice through this time will allow researchers to identify carbon levels and traces of chemicals that they believe could provide a clue to the cause of this climate shift and which could help map the long term future of our planet.

This is an exciting example of how the Australian Government’s unprecedented investment in the Australian Antarctic Program is seeing the development of innovative technology to reach a new scientific frontier.

Construction of the cutting head began in March with the nine-metre drill developed using European and US technology along with Australian innovation.

The drill is machined from specialised stainless steel, aluminium bronze and titanium and will be able to extract cores up to 3 metres at a time

Scientists will use the drill at a remote field camp, 1200 kilometres inland in Antarctica, over a four year period from 2021.