The Office of Polar Programs of the National Science Foundation (NSF) has signed cooperative agreements – one with a university collaboration between Dartmouth College, the University of New Hampshire, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and the other with the University of Wisconsin-Madison alone – that together create two new entities to support, advise and conduct ice coring and drilling used in polar research.

The cooperative agreement will create an Ice Drilling Program Office (IDPO) at Dartmouth College coordinated by Mary Albert, visiting professor of engineering at Dartmouth's Thayer School of Engineering, with collaborations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the University of New Hampshire. The IDPO will provide scientific leadership and oversight of ice coring and drilling activities funded by NSF. Officials say the new collaboration will encourage innovation in ice-core drilling technologies, while better serving the glaciological community's evolving needs.

The IDPO also will oversee the second entity, the Ice Drilling Design and Operations Group (IDDOG), led by Charles Bentley, emeritus professor of geophysics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, as it works to provide engineering design and construction support for new drilling systems. IDDOG also will support the operation and maintenance of existing drilling systems.

The two new entities will replace the existing operation run by the Ice Coring and Drilling Services (ICDS) group at the University of Wisconsin as the principle supplier of ice drilling and coring support and expertise to NSF-funded research, and will interact with other research agencies and international partners as well.

Ice coring and drilling are critical components of scientific research in both polar regions and on high mountain glaciers, but they are not simple tasks. At high altitude, cold sites, the snow never melts, it just piles up year upon year, burying in the older snow clues to the climate at the time that snow fell on the surface. So by collecting vertical cores from ice sheets, evidence of the past can be obtained. Designers and engineers must create heavy-duty equipment that can work in some of the most remote places on the planet in punishing conditions of extreme cold, wind, precipitation and high altitude. "Ice drills come in a surprisingly large variety of sizes, types and purposes," Bentley says, "to satisfy the myriad needs of glaciological researchers."

The payoffs are high-quality ice core samples that provide scientists a better understanding of past climate conditions, levels of pollution and even clues into the origins of the universe, as well as boreholes that give scientists access to the insides of ice sheets and glaciers. "Ice coring science has led to many important discoveries," Albert notes, "including the realization that climate can change dramatically in less than ten years."

While the cores provide most of the information about the ancient environment, the hole left behind provides access to the interiors of the glaciers and ice sheets for measurements of present-day temperatures, deformation rates and basal conditions that allow researchers to better understand ice dynamics. Such research is crucial for studying how melting and faster outflowing ice at the poles may impact sea levels in response to climate change.