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Scripps Researcher Drills For Planet’s Oldest Ice In Antarctica

A research team on the frozen land of Antarctica in this undated photo.

Credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography

Above: A research team on the frozen land of Antarctica in this undated photo.

Two researchers, including one from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, are in Antarctica in an effort to uncover the planet's oldest ice.

The research trip is part of a cordial international race to find the ice, which will give geologists and climate scientists new insight into Earth's climate history. Scripps paleoclimatologist Jeff Severinghaus and University of Minnesota-Deluth geologist John Goodge arrived this month at an ice-drilling outpost at McMurdo Station, Antarctica.

In October, Severinghaus and researchers at Princeton University published a study in the journal Nature analyzing a two-million-year-old ice core. However, that core was incomplete in its historical portrait of ancient air. According to Severinghaus' ice dating lab, the planet's oldest ice is roughly 2.7 million years old.

"That core ... was all broken up," Severinghaus said of the Princeton study. "It's like in archaeology when you find pieces of broken pottery you're trying to put back together."

The two researchers are attempting to expedite the conventional ice drilling process, which currently takes roughly five years to dig two miles to the Antarctic ice shelf's deepest point. They believe their 50-ton drill could secure a 50-meter ice core with a full timeline of the continent's geologic development. Eventually, it could be used to dig to the continent's bedrock, which dates back 3 billion years.

In addition to each other, geologists and climate scientists in the southern hemisphere are in a race against nature, as climate change continues to melt Antarctic ice and cause sea levels to rise, particularly on the continent's western edge, according to Goodge.

"The bigger question is what's happening in East Antarctica because there's a lot more sea-level rise potential if it begins to melt as well," he said. "So we really need to understand what those conditions are."

Once collected, the researchers will pack the ice samples in boxes until January, when the Antarctic sea ice thaws and the samples can be shipped to Port Hueneme in Ventura County. They will then be transported to the National Science Foundation's Ice Core Facility in Lakewood, Colorado, for study in late spring.

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