A novel hot drilling system was used to bore a hole through hundreds of meters of Antarctic ice. Image: Craig Stevens

Everything’s harder in Antarctica, and that includes reaching the ocean. On a recent expedition to the frozen continent, scientists melted a nearly 1,200-foot-deep borehole through the Ross Ice Shelf in order to access the icy seawater beneath it.

The resultant footage looks straight out of a scifi horror flick.

The team of glaciologists, oceanographers and more—part of New Zealand’s Ross Ice Shelf program—was out on the ice from November to January using hot water drilling gear to burn a 25 cm (10 inch)-wide hole through some 360 meters (1,200 feet) of very solid water in order to take measurements of the underlying ocean. As Ross Ice Shelf program team members Craig Stevens and Christina Hulbe noted in a recent article in The Conversation, it’s only the second time this part of the ocean has ever been sampled.*


The first samples were collected in the 1970s, so it’s been a while.

The scientists are hopeful that more data on the waters beneath the Ross Ice Shelf will help address crucial questions about the impacts of climate change. It’s this water, after all, that can eat away at Antarctica’s largest ice shelf from below as it warms up. And with that ice shelf weakened, all of the ice piled up on land behind it can, in theory, start flowing into the ocean faster, where it can melt and contribute to sea level rise.

Satellite image showing the camp on the Ross Ice Shelf, some 350 km inland from New Zealand’s Scott Base, where the recent borehole was drilled. Image: Ross Ice Shelf Programme

The researchers’ new data suggests, unsurprisingly, that the ocean in this part of the world is getting warmer. It is also becoming less salty, and the lower reaches of the ice contain sediment that was likely entrapped centuries earlier, when these floating ice shelves were glaciers connected to the land.


“None of this is included in present models of the climate system,” Stevens and Hulbe write, adding that it’s not yet clear how these warming waters will affect the longevity of the overlying shelf.

While the video footage captured by instruments traveling down the borehole feels a bit like a deleted scene from Europa Report right before the space octopus wrecks everybody’s shit, it’s not our first glimpse into this alien world. Another expedition that wrapped last fall saw humans diving down into the icy waters beneath two different sea ice locations near the Ross Ice Shelf, New Harbour and Cape Evans.


Those scientists collected troves video footage and witnessed dramatic changes to seafloor invertebrate communities compared with their last expedition in 2009—changes that they suspect are due to rapid thinning of the overlying ice.

[h/t The Conversation]

Update 2/5: After publication of this article, another scientist working in this part of the world got in touch with Earther to point out that a third borehole was drilled in a different area of the Ross Ice Shelf in 2015. The third borehole was drilled further inland; much closer to the ice shelf’s grounding line. But if we consider “this part of the ocean” to be the cavity beneath the Ross Ice Shelf, it technically qualifies.


Maddie Stone is a freelancer based in Philadelphia.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter