Sunday, January 1, 2012

The End of an Era: The WAIS Divide Ice Core

Yesterday, amongst a small group of friends and fellow scientists, the WAIS Divide Deep Ice Core (main borehole) drilling came to an end. The drillers pulled up the last and final ice core from the main borehole, WDC06A...from a depth of 3405 meters. At the end of last season, we all believed that the drilling was over and that we had achieved our absolute deepest mark of 3330 meters. At the time, there was no official approval to make it any deeper, and as far as we were all concerned, the project was a success. I even blogged about it. There was a HUGE celebration and the entire camp staff had an enormous party. Everyone photographed the final core and took pride in the fact that we were there, present, for the last core. People proudly went home with the thought that they could tell folks that there were there for the "last core".

But alas, it wasn't really over.

Shortly after returning to the States last year, approval was obtained to run a series of experiments to determine the absolute depth to the bedrock at WAIS Divide (which was assumed to be about 3450 meters). Because the borehole is filled with drill fluid, and because there is believed to be about 1.5 cm of water at the bed, we cannot drill to the bedrock and risk that fluid contaminating the basal hydrological network under the ice sheet. So, NSF set an absolute limit of drilling to be 50 meters above the bed. The problem was that we didn't really know for sure, where the bed was. So the plan was to send a group (from Penn State coincidentally) down to run some seismic experiments to determine that depth so that we could drill up to that 50-meter limit. This is why I was able to return. Normally, they send down 6-8 science techs (or "core handlers"), of which I'm included. With this year being a much smaller operation, there are only three of us here.

The atmosphere this year was much different than last year. A small group of about 20 of us quietly stood in the drilling arch as the last core came up to the surface. There was no glorious speech, no huge party, just a humble, subdued feeling of accomplishment. We shook hands, thanked everyone, and processed the core as usual. I managed to get a couple of photographs as we marked and cut the core before pack-up. The above photo was taken moments before cutting the last meter of ice from the very last core of the project.

Later that night we prepared for a nice New Year's Eve dinner and contemplated a very poignant thought:
The WAIS Divide Deep Ice Core project was first conceived 25 years ago. In 1986 there was a short article written about how the U.S. should drill an ice core in West Antarctica. In the early 90's, the actual WAIS Divide initial proposal was first drafted. Yesterday, I was there for, and I witnessed, a 25 year vision come to an end. It was quite a powerful thought.

I have been incredibly fortunate to have been involved with this project for 4 years now. Not only did my Masters degree and first publication come from data I obtained from this core, but I have been able to come down and work here in the field all four seasons. Never did I imagine I would get to work in remote Antarctica...let alone FOUR times. Add to that the incredible opportunity I had in November to work as a part of the polenet project, and I feel ridiculously fortunate.

As this week moves on, the focus of the project now will shift to what we are calling "replicate coring". The drillers will send down a new type of drill, and drill off-angle into the sides of the main borehole at specific shallower pull up "replicate cores" to the main core. This is a very new type of technology and will take a long time to master. The goal for the remaining few weeks here is simply to get the replicate coring working, and to pull up a few meters. On the side, I have some other projects going on here and hope get that work done in few days.

So....what does this mean for me. Not sure yet. I may or may not be here to the end of the season, but am at least tentatively scheduled that way for now. Next year replicate coring will go into full swing, but me returning here to WAIS seems very unlikely. I have my PhD comprehensive exam next year and have a lot of research and writing to do. Plus, at some point, I need to actually start thinking about graduating in the next couple years. With that said, it would be quite a milestone to come down for a 5th season...but I think being home for Christmas would actually be quite wonderful for a change (as much as I love it here on the ice).

That's it for now. Happy New Year everyone! 2011 was truly one of the best years of my life and I only hope that 2012 can be just as wonderful.


...oh and I received some rather interesting news regarding an upcoming ultra/race that I'm VERY excited about. I will post about it once I get back home, but I will tell you that I CAN'T WAIT!


Katie said...

I'm not a scientist (and I don't play one on TV), but I find this post fascinating. Congratulations. Well done. I can't wait to read about the ultra surprise!

Anonymous said...

Well done John. Last year was amazing and I can bet this year was as you described, powerful to know the end of someone else's dream is now a reality. I wish I could have made it down this season.
Say hey to all the regulars for me.


UltraChris said...

all of your ice experience is way beyond my comprehension, but thank you for posting about it because i find it absolutely fascinating! congratulations on all that you achieved.

if you are home in june, keep in mind the Finger Lakes Fifties (june 30, register at i'd love to have you join us again! take care.

Anonymous said...

Rebecca B =)