Ancient Buried Ice in Antarctica

What Are They Doing?

A small team of earth scientists and engineers used a specialized drill to reach buried ice deposits in Beacon Valley – a part of the Dry Valleys region of Antarctica. Buried ice deposits represent a new and potentially far-reaching archive of Earth’s atmosphere and climate. The drill operations retrieved ice cores, which enabled the research team to gain access to a record of atmospheric and climatic change extending back for many millions of years. The ice that was drilled was estimated to be over several million years in age, making it by far the oldest ice yet known on this planet.

Simultaneously, the team worked in the Dry Valleys to seek a better understanding of surface processes above buried ice on Earth, for insight into Martian history and the potential for life on Mars. The cold-polar desert of the Dry Valleys is one of the most Mars-like climatic environments and landscapes on Earth.

Additionally, the team continued to investigate the timing of tundra extinction in Antarctica. Collaborating with colleagues from North Dakota State University, the team examined ancient lake beds outside of Beacon Valley that contain freeze-dried remnants of mosses, beetles, and diatoms, all of which underwent rapid extinction around 13.9 million years ago. For the past 13.9 million years, climate conditions in the Dry Valleys have been too cold for even the hardiest of tundra plants and animals; fortunately, however, the conditions have been ideal for long-term preservation of multi-million year old, buried ice.

Dr. Marchant explains the significance of sampling in Beacon Valley in this video.

Where Are They?

The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located on the western coast of McMurdo Sound (77°00'S 162°52'E) and form the largest relatively ice-free area (approximately 4800 square kilometers) on the Antarctic continent. The perennially ice-covered lakes, frozen alpine glaciers, and extensive areas of exposed soil and permafrost within the McMurdo Dry Valleys are subject to low temperatures, limited snowfall, and salt accumulation. In the coldest and driest part of this region, where the team set up camp, liquid water is basically non-existent and the landscape has remained frozen in time for millions of years. Walking through Beacon Valley today is akin to walking back in time; the 10+ million-year-old landscape gives the researchers a glimpse of what the world was like millions of years before the first recorded events in human history.

Expedition Map


When I applied to the PolarTREC program, I was asked where I would prefer to go given the options of the Arctic, Antarctica, or either. I checked the Antarctica box only, despite the fact that I may have decreased my chances of being selected. Antarctica was my preference for many reasons. As a teacher I felt that Antarctica represented the last frontier to study the geologic history of the planet because the continent is uninhabited, not polluted, and restricted to pure research. Over the last few years I have noticed that my students were very concerned with global climate change and based...
The team caught the December 17, 2008 flight to Christchurch at 0530. Approximately eight long hours later we arrived in Christchurch, claimed our luggage, and turned in our Extreme Cold Weather Gear. I stayed one night in Christchurch and left for Los Angeles on December 18, 2008.  I managed to take a few interesting pictures on the flight from Auckland, New Zealand  to Los Angeles. Will Sean look this happy in eight hours?
The 2008 Antarctic drilling season is over for Dr. Marchant's team. The team spent a total of 35 days in Mullins and Beacon Valley camps, and retrieved 72 m of core from 5 drilling sites. Sampling locations and cores retrieved. Base map provided by J Walker RPSC 29 November 2006. Dave Marchant has taken time from a busy schedule to provide a video recap of the science. Before we met, Dave Marchant was described to me as a "hardcore" geologist. After meeting and spending time with him in the field, I would describe Dave as an "old school" geologist. Old school geologists are all hardcore...
The team moved to Site 5 on December 8, 2008. Site 5 is the location of one of the soil pits dug by Dave Marchant (See 22 November 2008 journal entry). Dave uncovered a volcanic ash layer directly on top of cobble-rich ice (the cobbles represent an ancient rock fall onto the glacier accumulation zone). The team needs to drill beneath this layer to determine if pristine ice lies beneath it. As mentioned previously, this will be the hardest drilling challenge of the season.Base map provided by J Walker RPSC 29 November 2006. Dave Marchant clears the ash from the ice in preparation for...
The entire team is back in McMurdo, but there is still more work to be done. All of the camp equipment has to be inventoried, cleaned, separated, and returned to the Berg Field Center (BFC). Team members carefully organized and stored the equipment upon arrival in Mac Town so that the sorting, cleaning, and return process took ½ day.Each Principal Investigator is assigned a "cage" or storage area. The cage is used for storing camping equipment and supplies as the teams prepare for field deployment and after returning from the field. At the end of the season, the cage must be cleaned...

Expedition Resources

Project Information

4 November 2008 to 15 December 2008
Location: Dry Valleys, Antarctica
Project Funded Title: Dating and Paleoenvironmental Studies on Ancient Ice in the Dry Valleys

Meet the Team

Jacquelyn Hams's picture
Los Angeles Valley College
Valley Glen, CA
United States

Jacquelyn (Jackie) Hams is an Associate Professor of Earth Science at Los Angeles Valley Community College, where she teaches Physical Geology, Introduction to Oceanography, Environmental Science, and Planetary Science to many first generation college students. Ms. Hams has a scientific background in environmental and subsurface investigations in terrestrial and marine environments and experience working with Fortune 100 companies as an environmental consultant and as a petroleum geologist. Ms. Hams holds a Master's degree in Geology and enjoys sailing and outdoor photography.

Dave Marchant's picture
Boston University
Boston, MA
United States

Dr. Dave Marchant has led 21 field expeditions to Antarctica. His research interests are in the fields of glacial and periglacial geomorphology, global climate change, and planetary geology. In his research, he links traditional geomorphic field observations in ice-free areas of the continent with state-of-the-art geophysical, remote sensing, and dating techniques. Dr. Marchant is currently the Director of Undergraduate Studies in Earth Sciences at Boston University. You can read more about Dr. Marchant and his research here []