Australia’s million-year ice core quest departs Casey Station in Antarctica

Australia’s most ambitious polar exploration project in twenty years has set off for the Antarctic interior in the quest for the million-year ice core. 

A convoy of five tractor trains left Casey research station in East Antarctica on 23 December to prove an over-ice route towards Little Dome C and the site of the million-year ice core.

The mission relies on five Antarctic-adapted tractors pulling specially designed sleds of containerised living quarters and equipment to support the scientific drilling project.

If the convoy is able to travel the full 1200km to Little Dome C the teams will set up camp for scientists to start drilling as early as next summer. The aim this season is to forge as much of the path as possible and put the speciality travelling equipment to the test.

The convoy’s mission is far from easy. Extreme weather, changing ice conditions and challenging and unexplored terrain will all affect how far the team is able to travel. Outside the temperature could reach as low as minus 50 degrees as the weather cools later in the season.

Travelling at around 10km/hr the focus of progress is safety, not speed, for the team of ten people on board. They include a field leader, glaciologist, doctor, mechanics and engineers.

  • Day 1, 23 December: The team spend most of the day completing final checks before travelling 14km. 
  • Day 2, 24 December: The team spend about 8.5hrs moving and achieved a distance of 88km.
  • Day 3, Christmas Day: The team travelled 37km before sitting down to Christmas dinner of roast turkey and pudding cooked in the mobile traverse kitchen.
  • Day 4, Boxing Day: Travelled 105km in 10hrs in good weather and good visibility. Skuas and Wilson Storm Petrels sighted.
  • Day 5, 27 December: 7.5hrs travelled and covered a distance of 78km in conditions that changed from overcast and snowy to almost whiteout in the afternoon. Temperature -10 degrees C.
  • Day 6, 28 December: Travelled 56km and slowed down to weave through large sastrugi (uneven ice surface caused by wind). Temperature -15 degrees C.
  • Day 7, 29 December: Travelled 48km in blowing conditions and large sastrugi. Visibility was 300-500m and the conditions described as challenging. Temperature -17 degrees C. Skua sighted playing in the wind.

The destination, Little Dome C, is 3230 m above sea level. From the summit scientists will drill down around 2.8km into the ice to retrieve ice cores for climate research – reaching over a million years down into the history of Earth. 

Once the drilling has occurred, air bubbles trapped in the ice cores will be studied to improve scientific understanding of the stability of the climate system over the past million years – and help to make predictions for the future. 

The project will provide new information to test climate models and resolve long-standing questions about the timing of ice ages. 

In particular, it will help answer why the ice age cycle changed around a million years ago from a regular 41,000-year cycle to an ice age every 100,000 years. 

The team is expected to return to Casey station in early February – spending over a month out on the expedition.

Quotes attributable to the Minister for the Environment and Water, the Hon Tanya Plibersek MP: 

“So much of Antarctica remains a mystery, and so much knowledge remains locked within the ice. 

“The traverse to Little Dome C and the search for the million-year ice core is one of the most significant Antarctic science endeavours ever undertaken by Australia – or indeed, any country.

“The departure of the traverse team is a major milestone in the Million Year Ice Core Project.

“The effort of this team and their summer expedition will provide the logistical support for Australia to drill and return the ice core for climate research. If successful, it will be the oldest ice core ever obtained. 

“Ice cores are like pages in a climate diary, containing chemicals and bubbles of air that reveal past changes in the atmosphere and climate. 
“Understanding our planet’s climate history provides us with invaluable knowledge to help guide us in the future.

“Australia is playing a leading role in the international effort to secure this knowledge.

“Developing new technology to travel across Antarctica will also be important in future years to support major science expeditions.”