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Scientists use hot water to ‘drill’ a hole a mile deep in the Antarctic


A team of scientists and engineers from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have successfully drilled a hole more than one mile deep in the western Antarctic, hoping to uncover more information about the effect of climate change on the region. Rather than using deep drilling equipment, which can suffer problems in the harsh, low temperature environment, the hole was “drilled” using hot water.

“The concept of hot water drilling is very simple,” Keith Makinson, a physical oceanographer at BAS, who was involved with the Beamish project, told Digital Trends. “Melt a large reservoir of water from the surrounding snow, [then] pump the water through heaters to reach 90 degrees Celsius (194 degrees Fahrenheit) and down the 2.3-kilometer hose that is lowered at 1 to 2 meters per minute into the ice. A pump is lowered down to 250 meters and the water is recovered to the surface, heated, and pumped back down the drill hole.”

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Over a period of 63 hours of continuous drilling, the team was able to create a hole with a diameter of around 30 cm. Making things extra challenging was the fact that the hole was constantly refreezing, meaning that there was a limited amount of time to deploy the necessary monitoring instruments before it became unusable. These monitoring instruments will be used to record data including water pressure, ice temperature, and deformation within the ice. A previous attempt to do the same thing in 2004 failed to achieve its goal.


“The Beamish project will improve understanding of the past behavior of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the fast-flowing ice streams that drain it,” Makinson continued. “Through measurements at the ice surface, and by drilling to the bed of Rutford Ice Stream and collecting sediment and deploying monitoring instruments, we hope to find how long ago the ice sheet last disappeared completely, and how water and soft sediments underneath it helped the ice move fast on its journey to eventually melting in the sea. Understanding how slippery the underlying sediments are is critical to understanding ice flow and making better predictions.”

Later this year, the team will head further west in Antarctica to Thwaites Glacier, where the team will again use hot water drilling to carry out experiments concerning the effects of warm ocean waters on the glacier. Other projects aimed at exploring and sampling subglacial lakes buried thousands of feet beneath the ice sheet are planned to take place by 2024.

The team’s work can be followed through their regular Twitter updates and images.

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