Scientists Drilled a Mile-Long Hole in the Antarctic Ice

What's at the end of the hole could tell scientists what will happen to the continent over the next few decades.

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British Antarctic Survey

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is an enigma. It makes up around one third of the entire Antarctic continent and will play a pivotal role in the next few decades because it’s melting, and fast. It’s also unpredictable, which makes it tough for scientists to get a handle on exactly how fast that melting is happening.

That’s why a team of scientists decided to to figure it out.

Here are some things we know about the West Antarctic Ice Sheet: The sheet is held up by a collection of ice shelves, which are melting pretty quickly. The exception is the Ross Ice Shelf, one of the biggest in the group, which appears to be growing bigger. Nevertheless, the overall ice sheet is still melting, aided by a collection of underground volcanoes. In fact, it’s melting faster than scientists expected, although other factors might be slowing down that melting.

If this sounds like a confusing mess of contradictions, you’re not wrong. Nobody knows for sure what’s really going on in West Antarctica. Part of the problem with studying the region is that much of the important information is buried deep underneath a mile of ice. Which is why an expedition has spent the last few months drilling the giant hole.

As you might have guessed, drilling a mile-long hole isn’t easy. In fact, the team behind this attempt tried once before, in 2004, and failed. This time, they spent 12 weeks boring through the ice sheet with a hot-water drill. On January 8, they finally passed through the ice and hit the sediment underneath.

“I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we’ve finally achieved our goal,” said lead scientist Andy Smith .

With this giant hole finally drilled, the scientists can send instruments down to the bottom to study the sediment underneath the ice sheet, gaining a clear picture for the first time of what the underside of all that ice looks like. With that information, scientists can finally pin down just what’s going to happen to the ice sheet in the future, and (they hope) get rid of all that confusion.

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