Clues Frozen in Ice

Greenland landscape.

Building on a pioneering history of ice coring, a UB geologist is drilling down for insights into the fate of the planet.

The University at Buffalo is co-leading GreenDrill, a $7 million project funded by the National Science Foundation that will bring teams to the Greenland Ice Sheet to investigate one of Earth’s largely unexplored frontiers: the bedrock below the ice.

They’ll collect cylindrical sections of bedrock, called bedrock cores, from several locations below the ice sheet in northern Greenland. The chemical data contained in these samples act as a historical archive, documenting when these regions were last free of ice.

The research could help scientists understand how the Greenland Ice Sheet will respond to climate change, and also predict how global sea levels will rise in the 21st century as ice sheets shrink.

“One thing we’ve always wanted to do is lift up the ice sheet and look at the bedrock below,” says project co-lead Jason Briner, professor of geology in UB’s College of Arts and Sciences. “We can’t do that, but we can drill through the ice to get samples from down there.”

Getting to the bottom of things

Briner led the selection of four regions where GreenDrill will operate. Drilling is scheduled to begin in 2022, with researchers including Briner and his students camping on the frozen expanse to collect bedrock along with basal ice (ice found at the bottom of the ice sheet) and sediments. Together, these samples will help paint a picture of the ice sheet configuration over time.

Closer to home, the GreenDrill team will lead programs that engage K-12 and college students in earth science, introducing geology as a career and promoting diversity and inclusion in the geosciences. UB also plans to develop a two-week Earth Education Institute for teachers and facilitate production of a documentary on the drilling project using high-definition footage from Greenland.

UB’s icy legacy

Decades ago, researcher Chester “Chet” Langway, who joined UB in the 1970s as a geology professor, was a pioneer in deep ice drilling in Greenland, and UB housed a huge, frozen library of ice core samples. The GreenDrill project returns Buffalo to a lead role in ice drilling, opening exciting new opportunities for students in field and lab work.

“UB will be back on Greenland, drilling through the ice,” Briner says. “I just think that’s so cool.”