A Thermal Melt Probe System for Extensive, Low-Cost Instrument Deployment Within and Beneath Ice Sheets

Friday, 19 December 2014
Dale P Winebrenner, W. Timothy Elam, Mike Carpenter and Paul Kintner III, University of Washington Seattle Campus, Seattle, WA, United States
More numerous observations within and beneath ice sheets are needed to address a broad variety of important questions concerning ice sheets and climate. However, emplacement of instruments continues to be constrained by logistical burdens, especially in cold ice a kilometer or more thick. Electrically powered thermal melt probes are inherently logistically light and efficient, especially for reaching greater depths in colder ice. They therefore offer a means of addressing current measurement problems, but have been limited historically by a lack of technology for reliable operation at the necessary voltages and powers. Here we report field tests in Greenland of two new melt probes. We operated one probe at 2.2 kilowatts (kW) and 1050 volts (V), achieving a depth of 400 m in the ice in ~ 120 hours, without electrical failure. That depth is the second greatest achieved thus far with a thermal melt probe, exceeded only by one deployment to 1005 m in Greenland in 1968, which ended in an electrical failure. Our test run took place in two intervals separated by a year, with the probe frozen at 65 m depth during the interim, after which we re-established communication, unfroze the probe, and proceeded to the greater depth. During the second field test we operated a higher-power probe, initially at 2.5 kW and 1500 V and progressing to 4.5 kW and 2000 V. Initial data indicate that this probe achieved a descent rate of 8 m/hr, which if correct would be the fastest rate yet achieved for such probes. Moreover, we observed maintenance of vertical probe travel using pendulum steering throughout both tests, as well as autonomous descent without operator-intervention after launch. The latter suggests potential for crews of 1-2 to operate several melt probes concurrently. However, the higher power probe did suffer electrical failure of a heating element after 7 hours of operation at 2000 V (24 hours after the start of the test), contrary to expectations based on laboratory component and system testing. We are therefore revising the probe heaters using a newer but more development-intensive technology. With probe systems now validated in our tests, this will result in a reliable means to emplace instruments for studies of subglacial hydrology, ice dynamics, and possible subglacial ecologies.