Field Notes: The Polar Field Services Newsletter

In the NEEM Tunnels

The process of taking several kilometers of core out of the middle of a great ice sheet is a gigantic undertaking. There’s the frosty landscape, barren of infrastructure and the seemingly interminable logistics chain, both of which drive the stakes high and require a lot of commitment.  And then there’s the fragile treasure—the ice itself, worth its weight in gold by the time it sees daylight given the cost of its capture.

"The main NEEM building, the dome, is just beautiful inside," Robbie Score commented. There's a lot of ambient light, comfortable furniture, well-organized space." Robbie managed to take a quick tour of the dome after touring the ice coring facilities under ground.

"The main NEEM building, the dome, is just beautiful inside," Robbie Score commented. There's a lot of ambient light, comfortable furniture, well-organized space." Robbie managed to take a quick tour of the dome after touring the ice coring facilities under ground.

CPS staffers Robbie Score and Ed Stockard visited the NEEM drilling camp recently with a group of media, and were treated to a tour of the ice coring and processing facilities located below ground. “It almost felt like a science fiction experience,” Robbie recalled. “We were six meters underground, surrounded by all this activity. The international flavor of it added to the energy—there were people from Korea, Denmark, Germany, the US and other places, all working on various elements of the project.” Robbie says that the coring team has to pipe surface air down into the underground rooms to offset the heat from so many bodies, instruments, machines, and computers at work.

This is the drilling station. The tower apparatus in the center of the room is the drill rig. The spool, front center, holds the cable on which the drill itself travels up and down the casing. The NEEM drill, newly engineered, is working gorgeously, and the researchers are also delighted with the new, plant-derived fluid used to keep the hole from freezing.

This is the drilling station. The tower apparatus in the center of the room is the drill rig. The spool, front center, holds the cable on which the drill itself travels up and down the casing. The NEEM drill, newly engineered, is working gorgeously, and the researchers are also delighted with a biodegradable, plant-derived fluid used to keep the hole from freezing or collapsing.

Per the NEEM Web site, the drill can hold about four meters of core, and each run takes somewhere between 40 minutes and several hours, depending on how deep the drill has to descend to reach ice. The NEEM team will need to make about 800 runs to reach the muddy bottom 2.5 km below the surface, so spring/summer drilling operations will continue at least into late 2010.

Ed Stockard got this shot of ice core coming out of the drill barrel.

Ed Stockard got this shot of ice core coming out of the drill barrel.

When it is brought up, the core is taken to a second underground room connected to the drilling area itself by a subterranean tunnel:

There is so much activity that the drilling room is separated from the processing room by a long tunnel.

There is so much activity that the drilling room is separated from the processing room by this long tunnel.

About half of the core is stabilized, packed, archived, and stored for shipment to ice core storage facilities. The rest is analyzed over in the NEEM tunnel, subjected to a series of increasingly destructive measurements: The core is first polished to create the smooth surface needed for some of the optical measurements; the process continues with conductivity tests, which can point to material in the core that provides evidence of big events like volcanoes; after several more tests,  the core is melted for isotopic analysis.

In the science room: Some of the core runs a gamut of tests in the science room, giving up its secrets to scientists without ever leaving Greenland.

Some of the core runs a gamut of tests in the science room, giving up its secrets to scientists without ever leaving Greenland.

On-site processing saves some of the huge logistics costs involved in shipping the core, and it also provides insurance against the risk of catastrophic failure during core transport. Given the planning and effort this frozen treasure demands of the NEEM team, a little insurance is a very good thing.

Pictures by Robbie Score unless otherwise identified.