Drilling for Old Ice

Tanner Kuhl operates the Koci Drill in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Tanner Kuhl operates the Koci Drill in the Dry Valleys, Antarctica. —Credit: Tanner Kuhl, Univ. Wisconsin

JACKIE HAMS' essay on her visit to Antarctica is part of a project that studies ancient ice buried in the Dry Valleys (Antarctica). David Marchant of Boston University and Michael Bender of Princeton University are collaborators on the project that is collecting this old ice. The ice is covered by rock debris, which protects it from sublimating. The investigators use argon and uranium radioisotope techniques to date the ice. Analysis has shown that the ice is over a million years old, making it the oldest ice found on the planet. The researchers are working on how the ice was formed in hopes of providing climatic evidence of past atmospheric conditions more than a million years ago.

The Ice Drilling Design and Operations group at the University of Wisconsin designed and built a special drill called the Koci Drill, named after the late drilling engineer Bruce Koci, that is basically a thin- kerf hand auger powered by a shop drill. It is designed to core ice that contains silt and rocks. The system includes cutters with interchangeable edges: carbide for silty ice and steel for cleaner ice. A small drill press provides pressure on the drill bit when cutting through rock. The drill produces 76-mm (3-inch) diameter cores up to 1 meter long.