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Russian Scientists Drill World’s Deepest Borehole in Antarctica

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The year 2020 marks 200 years since Russian sailors discovered Antarctica. Two centuries on, there is still a global rivalry amongst the states claiming different parts of the continent. However, it is good to note that there have been positive examples of interstate cooperation. They, for instance, allowed to confirm the cyclical nature of the Earth's climate. Forpost Press goes into detail about the efforts of Russian scientists to carry out such large-scale research, shedding light on whether our country is still the leader in polar research.

Antarctica: Discoverers and Secrets

The Russian ships Vostok and Mirny, led by Thaddeus Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, approached the ice shelves of the planet's southernmost continent on 28 January 1820. A few days later, foreigners also sailed there, which gave them grounds to challenge us for primacy. However, for a long time, up to the mid-twentieth century, finding out whose foot had first set foot on the ice of Antarctica went on in a limp mode.

Everything changed in 1948 when the USA initiated work on creating an international legal regime for managing that region. The Soviet Union was not invited to the dialogue but firmly declared that it would not be possible to divide the continent without the participation of the USSR. To demonstrate its determination to the West, the USSR subsequently set up some twenty scientific bases there - more than any other power could afford.

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Some of them are still in operation today - for example, the Vostok station, located in one of the coldest places on the planet. In 1983, a record low temperature of minus 89.2 °C was recorded there. Even in summer, which in the southern hemisphere falls in December and February, the thermometer arrow in the area rarely rises above minus twenty degrees.

The station was founded in 1957, during the second Soviet Antarctic expedition. And seven years later, the famous geomorphologist Andrei Kapitsa, who carried out seismic soundings of the ice sheet, suggested a vast lake underneath. The theory was finally confirmed in the late 1980s when Russian, French and American experts began drilling together to unlock the secrets of a body of water that had been isolated from the Earth's atmosphere for millions of years (its surface is 3769 metres below the ground).

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Science fiction buffs seriously speculated that previously unknown species might exist there. But scientists were interested in something else: the possibility of finding out what happened on Earth hundreds of thousands of years ago.

Ice Sheet

The fact is that Antarctica's ice cover is made up of so-called atmospheric ice, which is formed from solid precipitation - snow crystals that fall in solid form from the sky. Due to the constant sub-zero temperatures, they do not melt, and hence, year after year, they accumulate, compact into firn and then turn into ice, which gradually spreads from the centre of the continent to its edges.

It is easy to see that the ice lying on the surface is modern, and the lower it is, the older it is. For example, if you take a core from a depth of 3200 meters, its age will be between 400 and 430 thousand years. In the laboratory, its gas and isotopic composition can be studied in detail to determine what events occurred in the Earth's atmosphere when it formed and what effects they led to.

Drilling technology

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Drilling of boreholes to study the processes associated with climate change began at Vostok station back in 1970. All necessary equipment for this was created by scientists of the Leningrad Mining Institute (now St. Petersburg Mining University) under Boris Kudryashov. He was the author of rock drilling theory by fusion and thermal and mechanical destruction of ice. The current borehole 5G (the fifth deepest), which was supposed to penetrate the lake specifically, began in 1990.

"The Mining Institute created the basis for the theory of thermal and mechanical destruction of ice, methods for calculating the technological parameters of drilling. Scientists justified the formulation of a non-freezing pouring fluid, which is necessary to prevent wellbore constriction under the influence of rock pressure and temperature. There were also developed fundamentally new semi-autonomous electro-thermal and electro-mechanical drilling tools on a load-bearing cable, complexes of stationary and mobile drilling equipment, control and automated process control systems. The efficiency and reliability of the developed technologies can be judged by the stability with which drilling has proceeded," said Mining University professor Nikolay Vasilyev, who headed drilling operations at the Vostok station for a long time, until 2015.

Construction of the well to a depth of 2200 meters was carried out using the technology of melting ice, that is, with a thermal drill. Then a mechanical method, improved by scientists of St.Petersburg University, was used. The ice was cut with knives which were attached to the end of a hollow tube. It would go deeper into the glacier, and the core would remain inside, which would then be lifted to the top.

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Until 1998, Russian specialists were working in Antarctica in collaboration with their French and American colleagues. The first provided technological support for the project, supplying the expedition with necessary auxiliary equipment. The second took care of organizing the delivery of polar explorers to the "Vostock" station. In the economic crisis of the nineties, which was raging in Russia, this was very timely and relevant.

Towards the end of the last century, the foreign partners moved to other bases. The Americans, however, continued to provide services for transporting our scientists. Still, they did it with "a small caveat": Russians could only do glaciological research in Antarctica under the contract terms, but not drilling operations. The point is that by that time, voices of those accusing Russia of using "dirty" technologies, which could damage the unique ecosystem of the lake, began to be heard more and more often from abroad. In particular, the use of paraffin, freon and ethylene glycol to create a non-freezing liquid.

Experts are still unable to decide what was more in those statements - genuine concern for the purity of the project or envy of our science which, once again, was keen to prove its superiority. After all, by the end of the nineties, it had become clear that no one but the Russians would be able to create innovations that would make it possible to drill such a deep well and obtain samples from a relic body of water in the coming years.

Be that as it may, drilling work on the planet's largest subglacial lake was halted in 1999, some 120 metres from its intended surface. And Mining University began to work on a new type of pouring fluid, completed by 2003.

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In 2015, a group of scientists from Mining University and the Institute of the Arctic and Antarctic were awarded the Russian Government's prize in science and technology "for developing the theoretical foundations of environmentally friendly technologies and technical means of drilling, as well as their implementation in Antarctic glacier conditions". By then, they had succeeded in penetrating the lake twice and obtaining coveted samples of ancient water.

Scientific Findings and Prospects for Utilising Technology

"The results of isotopic and glaciological studies of Antarctic ice cores are of purely practical importance. For example, we established the cyclicity of climate change on Earth for the first time, tracing four glacial and interglacial periods. In addition, the duration of microbial anabiosis of more than 200 thousand years has been proven at the level of scientific discovery. For the first time, data on the temperature regime of the ice sheet were obtained for the central part of Antarctica, which formed the basis of mathematical modelling of heat and mass transfer processes in the glacier. And the results of both thermal and mechanical drilling have enabled our country to take the lead in the world in deep ice drilling," says Andrey Dmitriev, associate professor of Mining University. The latter was part of the 64th Russian Antarctic Expedition 2018/19.

© Форпост Северо-Запад / Данил Сербин

The prospects for using the technology are much broader. For example, NASA experts believe that studying Antarctic cores is the first step towards finding traces of life on Mars, Pluto, Jupiter's satellite Europa and other celestial bodies, where glaciers also lie, under which water bodies lurk.

There is a more down-to-earth version of where unique drilling rigs and support equipment could be used, which is being battle-tested in the harsh conditions of Antarctica. It is not a secret that on the other side of the Earth, in the depths of the Polar region, there are about 412 billion barrels of oil equivalent, according to the most conservative estimates. The lion's share of these resources is shared by Russia, the US and Denmark, which hold over 88% of the region's wealth.

Drilling in the Arctic also involves working in permafrost and an inhospitable climate. At the same time, experts are unambiguous in their conclusions - in the coming decades, the main drivers of oil and gas industry development will be the fields located on the shelf of the Arctic Ocean or in the coastal zone next to it. All this means that our country's continued leadership in hydrocarbon production will largely depend on the availability of domestic technologies, in particular those currently used at Vostok Station.