Ice Core Drillings

In order to take samples of ice formed by the compression of successive layers of snow, year after year, glaciologists carry out drilling operations known as ice core drilling. It consists of a vertical cut made using a core drill which involves a steel tube with the shape of a screw equipped with cutting blades. The steel tube which measures approximately 1,50cm in length is driven into the ice by its rotational functionality.
Carottage Bolivie
Once it is completely driven in – and thus filled with ice – glaciologists extract the tube containing an ice cylinder of approximately 1.0 meter long and 10 cm. of diameter, known as ice core. Each core is placed in a protective cover which is numbered and qualified in terms of its place of extraction, the upper and lower end is identified as well as the depth from which it was extracted and subsequently carefully stored in isothermal storage boxes until being transported in a refrigerated container.

The cold chain that needs to be set up from the drilling site all the way to the storage is particularly sensitive and represents a crucial element in such an ice core drilling operation.

Une carotte de glace

For more than 50 years, scientists have been carrying ice core drilling operations for their own research. As part of Ice Memory, four operations have been undertaken in an effort to collect heritage ice cores to be stored in Antarctica.

Kilimanjaro / Tanzania


Kilimanjaro’s iconic plateau glaciers are the only glaciers in entire Africa suitable for ice core based paleo climatic and environmental studies. However, they are rapidly shrinking in area and volume. 85% of the ice cover has been lost since 1912 [Cullen et al., 2013]. This is why glaciologists have made Kilimanjaro a priority on the Ice Memory roadmap. The mission planned in January 2020 has been cancelled but remains a priority operation that the scientific community would like to carry out as soon as possible.

June 2018 – Elbrus (Caucasus) / Russia



Vladimir Mikhalenko, Stanislav Kutuzov (Coordinators - Institute of Geography, Moscow), Ivan Lavrentiev (Institute of Geography, Moscow), Andrey Smirnov, Pavel Toropov (Lomonosov Moscow State University), Nelly Elagina (Institute of Geography, Moscow), Anna Kozachek (Arctic and Antarctic Research Institute, St. Petersburg), Sarah Del Ben (Wild-Touch Film Director, France).


Europe’s largest ice-covered volcanic massif (5,642 m), Elbrus is located in the Caucasus Mountains in southern Russia. With an area of around 115 km2 completely covered by ice, Elbrus’ glacial system contains more than 10% of the total volume of ice in Greater Caucasus. The Baksan, Kuban and Malka rivers flow from the Elbrus glacier, irrigating the agricultural land and plains of the North Caucasus.

Due to its altitude of more than 5,000 m, the ice is not deteriorating for the moment. Elbrus is one of the only glaciers in Europe where the climate information contained within the ice is still intact. The results of the first drilling expedition (2009) showed that the ice cores taken from Elbrus could provide unique information on several key aspects of changes in the environment, air pollution and volcanic activity.

The continuous records within an ice core from Elbrus could cover a period of 500 years. However, the reduction in the size of the glacier has increased substantially in the last few decades. That is why it was so urgent to protect this invaluable environmental archive.


Two ice cores were extracted: one measuring 150 m and the other 120 m. The extremely difficult weather conditions, unusual for this season, meant that, even after more than five weeks, an ice core of 250 m down to bedrock could not be extracted.
Initial analysis will be carried out at the Institute of Geography (Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow)..

Press release announcing mission

May 2018 – Belukha / Russia

Belukha face nord


Margit Schwikowski Coordinator, Theo Jenk, Reto Schild, Michael Sigl, Julika Stampfli (Paul Scherrer Institute), Martina Barandun (University of Fribourg), Sergei Kopytin, Andrei Obukhov (Rescue Service of the Altai Republic). Base Camp: Tatyana Papina, Stella Eyrikh (Institute for Water and Environmental Problems, SBRAS, Barnaul).

This drilling campaign is a joint project between the Institute for Water and Environmental Problems of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IWEP-RAS, Barnaul) and the Paul Scherrer Institute (PSI, Villigen, Switzerland). It receives financial support from the Swiss National Science Foundation and the Swiss Polar Institute.


The Belukha Glacier is located in a basin between the two peaks of Belukha, the highest of the Altai Mountains (rising to 4,506 m). The Altai mountain chain is a remote area of north-western Central Asia, on the border between Kazakhstan, south-western Siberia, north-western China and Mongolia. This region is of particular interest for palaeoclimate research, due to the highly continental nature of its climate and its position on the boundary between the Siberian forests and the arid regions of Central Asia.

Ice cores have already been drilled out of the Belukha Glacier in 2001 and 2003, showing that it is certainly the most appropriate site for studying ice cores in the region. While the temperature of the ice was below -14°C, layers of freeze-back were seen in the upper part of the glacier related to a sharp increase in summer temperatures. There is therefore an urgent need to collect new ice cores.


Two ice cores were extracted: one measuring 160 m down to bedrock and one measuring 106 m, for which drilling had to be stopped because of a crevasse. The latter will be the heritage core.
One ice core will be analyzed (study of stable isotopes, main ions, traces of chemical elements, soot and organic tracers) in order to contribute data to the reference database. A second ice core will join the Ice Memory sanctuary.

Press release announcing mission

2017 - Illimani / Bolivia

Camp de base Illimani


International team (France, Bolivia, Russia, Brazil) made up of 14 scientists led by Patrick Ginot from the Grenoble Institute of Environmental Geosciences (IGE), Romain Biron (IRD, France), Pierre Vincent (IRD, France), Thomas Condom (IRD, France), Bruno Jourdain (UGA, France), Christian Vincent (CNRS, France), Nicolas Caillon (CNRS, France), Luc Piard (CNRS, France), Xavier Faïn (CNRS, France), Joël Savarino (CNRS, France), Vladimir Mikhalenko (Institute of Geography, Moscow), Stanislav Kutuzov (Institute of Geography, Moscow), Filipe Gaudie Ley Lindau (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil), Alvaro Soruco (University Mayor San Andres La Paz, Bolivia), Sarah Del Ben (Wild-Touch Film Director, France).


Reaching a peak altitude of over 6,400 m, the Illimani glacier is located just above Bolivia’s capital, La Paz, on the border between the humid Amazon Basin and the arid Bolivian Plateau. This site has retained a multitude of information from a variety of sources, including changes in rainfall, wildfire (Amazon side), man-made pollutant emissions and urban pollution (Altiplano side). With a depth of 140 m and a reduced glacier flow, the site has preserved up to 18,000 years of climate and environmental records. Studying it will therefore provide a way to reconstruct the past of such an environment, from the last Ice Age to today.
This ice from Illimani contains 18,000 years of climate and environmental history (at the time when the ice near the bedrock was formed, prehistoric man was busy inventing harpoon heads and making the first cave paintings, long before Egyptian civilisation or the development of writing).
Press release announcing mission


Two ice cores measuring 134 m and 137 m were collected. Drilling of a third ice core had initially been planned but could not be attempted due to a lack of time and the need to ensure the safety of the teams.

Press release announcing results

The ice cores were transported by ship from Chile and arrived in Grenoble in August 2017 to be temporarily stored at the Institute of Environmental Geosciences (IGE). Analysis of the reference core will be carried out at the IGE from Autumn 2019, and the heritage ice core will be transported to Concordia.

2016 - Col du Dôme / France

Boites de carottes


International team of 10 glaciologists and engineers – French, Italian, Russian and American – coordinated by Patrick Ginot, IGE, and Jérôme Chappellaz, then CNRS Research Director working within the same laboratory.


Col du Dôme at an altitude of 4,300 m, at the foot of Mont Blanc


For this first Ice Memory campaign, three ice cores, each of 128 m in length, were extracted with the purpose of taking the associated glaciological measurements (topography, temperature, etc.).
All ice core samples were transported to Grenoble for temporary storage until the reference core could be analysed in 2019 along with two heritage ice cores being shipped to Antarctica.
Published on  October 11, 2019
Updated onOctober 13, 2021