Why is China planning to drill in Antarctic ice?


A representative of China’s Polar Research Institute, Jiang Su, made public information about a well planned for Antarctica on February 27. It is to be carried out by a Chinese scientific expedition to reach the Qilin subglacial lake. The reservoir is located at a depth of more than 3,600. m under the ice cap. Why do the Chinese consider such a deep well in the Antarctic ice to be worthwhile?

Qilin subglacial lake

According to information provided by Jiang Su, the subglacial lake is located in Princess Elizabeth Land, in the East Antarctic ice sheet, 120 km from China’s Taishan research station. The Chinese did not give it its name until 2022, but the study of this body of water began much earlier. The Taishan station was launched on February 8, 2014. It is the fourth Chinese facility in Antarctica. Since 2015, several aerial surveys of Qilin Lake have been conducted from aboard Snow Eagle 601, a fixed-wing aircraft adapted for polar flights. Based on aerial geophysical data collected over the Princess Elizabeth Land area, the subglacial lake is estimated to have an area of 370 km2 and a depth of up to 200 m.

It was only recently that a human foot stepped on the surface of the ice at the lake for the first time. During the ongoing 40. Antarctic expedition, members of the expedition conducted research to show where best to drill a well in the Antarctic ice. However, an exact schedule for the work has not yet been announced. What is known, however, is that key technologies will need to be refined before they can begin. The China Polar Research Institute, in cooperation with several other institutes in the country, will seek to make breakthroughs in areas such as clean and easy drilling, in-situ sounding, clean sampling or processing microbiological samples in cryogenic environments.

Secrets hidden by Antarctic ice

Subglacial lakes provide valuable information on climate change, biological evolution and the development of the Antarctic ice sheet over millions of years. As the ice cap has separated them from the outside world for a very long time, they have unique environmental conditions. There is high pressure, low temperature, little nutrients and also darkness. Thus, these are ideal conditions for preserving traces of the past in an unaltered state.

Researcher Jiang Su comments on the discovery as follows: Qilin, the second largest subglacial lake discovered to date in Antarctica, has a history of at least 3 million years of isolation from the outside world, making it an ideal place to study the conditions and subglacial life there.

In order to obtain physical samples from the subglacial lake, it becomes necessary to drill into the Antarctic ice. At the moment, there is still no other method of testing. Such samples were taken after 2012. This was done by research expeditions from the United States, the United Kingdom and also Russia. What will distinguish the ice cores that will be obtained from Qilin?

pic. SteveAllenPhoto999/Envato Elements

Ice samples from 3 million years ago

The cycle of ice ages began ca. 3 million years ago. If older samples could be obtained, it would be possible to learn more about the mechanism of environmental and climatic changes at that time. Until recently, it was thought impossible to get cores older than 1.5 million years because the heat flowing from the Earth’s core slowly melts the deepest layers of ice. However, in 2017. It has been announced that a team of scientists from Princeton University has succeeded in retrieving 2.7 million-year-old ice in Antarctica. The molecules in it were used to analyze greenhouse gas concentrations at the beginning of the ice age cycle. Now Chinese scientists are faced with the possibility of studying even older sediments.

Antarctic ice borehole is a source of knowledge about climate change

Such an ambitious project has great potential for unlocking the mysteries of the continent’s unique ecosystem and the potential for life forms to thrive in its extreme environment. In addition to potential biological discoveries, the borehole could help us better understand our planet’s past and provide valuable information for the future. On the other hand, the study of its formation and interaction with the ice sheet can say a lot about the evolution of the Antarctic landscape.

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