Climate research

Site for the Oldest Ice core in Antarctica identified – drilling can commence

New high-resolution radar data from East Antarctica reveals 1.5 million-year-old ice at a depth of ca. 2550 metres in the ice sheet
[20. December 2019] 

This week, an international team of researchers determined the final drilling coordinates for the oldest ice core in Antarctica, and began setting up camp on the Antarctic Plateau. When the time came to choose exactly where the drill should be used, the researchers relied on high-resolution data from a newly developed ice radar system, which they had used for the first time earlier this month in the target zone ‘Little Dome C’. In this region, located 40 kilometres to the west of the French-Italian research station ‘Dome Concordia’, the ice covering East Antarctica is ca. 2,800 metres thick. The experts now believe the oldest ice – up to 1.5 million years old – is at a depth of 2,550 metres. The goal of the European research project ‘Beyond EPICA’ is to collect an ice core that will make it possible to seamlessly reconstruct the climatic history of the past 1.5 million years; so far, we only have data on the past 800,000 years. The work currently going on at the drill site is only preparatory; the actual drilling is slated to begin in the Antarctic summer of 2020/21.

Earlier this month, aerial measurements taken with a new ice radar system developed at the University of Alabama, USA, yielded a major advance in the search for the oldest ice in Antarctica. “We were able to view the East Antarctic ice sheet at a far higher resolution than ever before at this depth,” says Prof Olaf Eisen, a glaciologist at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI).

He and fellow AWI glaciologist Prof Frank Wilhelms are among the leading scientists in the EU climate research project ‘Beyond EPICA’, in which experts from 16 institutes in 10 European countries have set themselves the goal of collecting an ice core with layers that (ideally) date back 1.5 million years. Doing so would allow them to reconstruct the climatic history for the same amount of time – i.e., the evolution of humankind dating back to the discovery of fire. The ice contains tiny pockets of air, which were trapped when the snow in the respective decade was transformed into ice.  

“Our greatest hope is that this ice core will give us the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gather comprehensive information on the global climate and greenhouse-gas concentrations during what is known as the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, roughly 900,000 to 1.2 million years ago,” says project coordinator Carlo Barbante from the Italian polar research institute ISP-CNR. During this phase, the glacial / interglacial cycle grew from 40,000 to 100,000 years, yet the reasons for the change are still unknown.

The drilling and the subsequent analyses of the gases trapped in the ice are expected to take six years to complete. Support from the European Commission, which approved 11 million euros for the ‘Beyond EPICA’ project, will continue for the same amount of time. The current phase was preceded by three years of scouting work in the context of the ‘Beyond EPICA – Oldest Ice’ project, which the AWI coordinated. In this time, researchers predominantly conducted aerial surveys of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, which were supplemented by extensive work on the surface.

By the way, the name of the current project is based on a previous endeavour, in which a European consortium drilled exactly 3,270 metres deep into the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EPICA - European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica, 1996 - 2004). One of the two resulting ice cores yielded a wealth of information on the climatic history of the past 800,000 years. In the new ‘Beyond EPICA’ project, the experts’ goal is to probe far deeper into the past. 

In addition to the Italian ISP-CNR and Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research, the following main partners are engaged in the project:

 ·       British Antarctic Survey, Great Britain

·       Institut polaire français Paul-Emile Victor (IPEV), France

·       Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), France

·       Agenzia nazionale per le nuove tecnologie, l'energia e lo sviluppo economico sostenibile (ENEA), Italy

·       Utrecht University, Netherlands

·       Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), Norway

·       Stockholm University, Sweden

·       University of Bern, Switzerland

·       University of Copenhagen, Denmark

·       University of Brussels, Belgium



Olaf Eisen

Frank Wilhelms


Ulrike Windhövel


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Das Alfred-Wegener-Institut forscht in den Polarregionen und Ozeanen der mittleren und hohen Breiten. Als eines von 19 Forschungszentren der Helmholtz-Gemeinschaft koordiniert es Deutschlands Polarforschung und stellt Schiffe wie den Forschungseisbrecher Polarstern und Stationen für die internationale Wissenschaft zur Verfügung.

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