Scientists will meet at UC Santa Cruz to discuss plans for a fast, mobile drilling system for polar research

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 history. 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.

Note to reporters: The workshop will take place October 4-6 at the University of California, Santa Cruz. If you would like to attend, please contact Tim Stephens in the UCSC Public Information Office, (831) 459-4352 or

In a workshop next week at the University of California, Santa Cruz, 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 the workshop.

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 at UCSC.

"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," Tulaczyk said.

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 unanswered.

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 environments there.

"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."


Editor's note: Reporters may contact Tulaczyk at (831) 459-5207 or