Scientists have for the first time successfully drilled over two kilometres through the ice sheet in West Antarctica using hot water, an advance they say will help understand how the region will respond to a warming climate.
The 11-person team led by scientists at British Antarctic Survey (BAS) has been working on the Rutford Ice Stream for the last 12 weeks in freezing temperatures as low as minus 30 degrees Celsius.
On January 8, following a 63 hour continuous round-the-clock drilling operation, the team broke through to the sediment 2,152 metres below the surface, BAC said in a statement.
A string of instruments were fed through the borehole which will record water pressure, ice temperature and deformation within the ice around it.
The project, named BEAMISH, has been 20 years in the planning, and was attempted in 2004 without success.
"I have waited for this moment for a long time and am delighted that we have finally achieved our goal," said lead scientist Andy Smith from BAS.
"There are gaps in our knowledge of what is happening in West Antarctica and by studying the area where the ice sits on soft sediment we can understand better how this region may change in the future and contribute to global sea-level rise," Smith said.
The team has now drilled two holes, with the second completed on January 22, and plan to work on the ice until mid-February this year.
Further work will now continue at a second site a few kilometres away, researchers said.
"We know that warmer ocean waters are eroding many of West Antarctica's glaciers," said Keith Makinson, a physical oceanographer at BAS.
"What we are trying to understand is how slippery the sediment underneath these glaciers is, and therefore how quickly they might flow off the continent into the sea. This will help us determine future sea level rise from West Antarctica with more certainty," Makinson said.