SPICE Core = South Pole Ice Core Drilling


One of my favorite parts of working at the South Pole is not working at the South Pole. Meaning, on my days off I get to do awesome stuff like tour the SPICE Core experiement’s set up about 2 miles from the station. SPICE Core = South Pole Ice Core. They are a team of 12 or so folks who built a camp, by hand and constructed a unique drill to dig 1600 meters below the snow’s surface to extract perfectly cylindrical cores to send all over the world to be studied.


Here’s the inside of the drilling tent that they had to construct in -20 and below temperatures… it reminds me how easy I have it in the galley. In the center there is the drill hoist and you can see the huge spool of wire behind it that they use to lower the drill almost a mile below the ice. The folks that are here doing the grunt work are known as Ice Core Drillers and are especially badass people. They do the hard stuff and the scientists who receive the fruits of their labor can look back into the history of the earth by identifying gases present in tiny bubble frozen in the ice when it formed thousands or millions of years ago.


This is the drill bit itself, which we were warned not to touch cause it was wicked sharp. To get down to the ice that the researchers are interested they first had to ream a hole down 160 meters to below the porous ice to get to the non porous ice, which represents thousands of years of snow build up and compaction. Once the hole is reamed they sink casing in to prevent the hole from closing in on their very expensive equipment (apparently this has happened a couple of times to the Russians and the Chinese, so if you ever feel like searching for buried treasure there are a few drills frozen deep in Antarctica.)


These blades cut a perfect cylinder out of the ice 2 meters long, then, at the discretion of the drillers, clamp down to send a crack through the ice to break it off, and hold the core on it’s long trip back up the hole. The spirals on the outside of the drill that are shown in the last picture bring up ice chips, which, when they aren’t contaminated with drilling fluid, are a nice way to chill a glass of scotch. We caught the team in the reaming/casing stage so they hadn’t broken out the stinky/slippery drilling fluids yet but apparently things were about to get a lot more messy when they start drilling deeper and deeper.


Once the cores are removed they’re sliced into 1 meter lengths, slipped into a plastic bag, slid into ana insulated tube then packed in ice chips in these boxes which remain frozen on the plane, in storage at McMurdo and in a special refrigerated container on a vessel all the way back to the states. They then make their way to Colorado where the National Ice Core Lab is where they will be divied up between different labs/scientists around the globe with which to do all sorts of cool science. It’s always fun to check out other people’s work centers down here because it reminds me why I’m here and that the science that I’m supporting by whipping up delicious dishes is important and unique and totally worth the trouble.

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