Hercules Dome

Researchers camped in tents for three weeks in Hercules Dome in 2019 to 2020, using the black panel on the left for satellite communication and a generator for power. The surrounding snow provides water and refrigeration.

University of New Hampshire scientists have received a five-year $425,000 grant to plan logistics for retrieving ice samples near the South Pole that could unlock the secrets of Earth’s last warm period.

Research Project Managers Joe Souney and Mark Twickler will be part of a multi-institutional U.S. team that will drill down to ice from 130,000 years ago at Hercules Dome, according to a UNH news release.

Remote even by Antarctic standards, the site lies near a mountain range that divides east and west Antarctica. Researchers said they are hoping to find clues to the last collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

“By drilling down into the ice sheet and recovering these cylinders of ice from ancient times, it allows us to look back in time for thousands and thousands of years and determine what the climate conditions were like back then,” Souney said in the news release.

The site itself is approximately 8,200 feet above sea level with a mean average temperature of minus-35 degrees Fahrenheit.

When snow falls in Antarctica’s interior, it rarely melts. Instead it builds up in thick layers, which are compressed into ice by subsequent snowfall. According to the news release, the ice layers contain dissolved chemicals, insoluble dust particles and atmospheric gases that were present when the snow fell. Ice and air bubbles trapped in the ice layers can provide researchers with information about past conditions.

“The ice cores from this region should provide the most detailed Eemian epoch environmental record available pretty much anywhere in the world,” Twickler said.

“The Eemian epoch, which was about 120,000 to 130,000 years ago, was the last time the Earth was in a warm period similar to today. If we can better understand the environmental drivers then, it might help us better understand current climatic conditions and help predict future conditions.”

The UNH project managers will provide logistics and science support planning for the field project. Researchers will live in tents on the ice sheet hundreds of miles from any inhabited areas for the months-long field seasons.

“Our planning will detail, for example, how we will get ourselves and all of the required science cargo and camp materials to Hercules Dome, likely through a combination of overland traverse and aircraft support; specifics on the field camp, such as camp population, camp structures and layout, power and fuel requirements, camp equipment; and the fieldwork schedule,” Souney said in the news release.

Work has been delayed by the coronavirus, but drilling the 1.5-mile ice core is set to begin in 2024.

The National Science Foundation funded the roughly five-year, $3 million project involving the University of New Hampshire, the University of Washington, the University of California Irvine and the University of Minnesota.

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