Victor Zagorodnov: Getting High on Glaciers

An ice-drilling specialist helps unlock the world’s climate history and gauge effects of global warming

5 min read
photo of Victor Zagorodnov
Gleaming: Victor Zagorodnov, standing in the Byrd Center’s refrigerator, admires an ice core containing clues to earth’s past.
Photo: Matthew Roharik

How did a Russian who worked his way through an institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences in Moscow, earning degrees in electrical engineering and hydrology, end up working in Ohio as the drilling technology specialist for the world’s leading research group in the field of tropical and subtropical glaciers? What was it that got this son of a World War II submariner into the business of climbing some of the world’s highest peaks to drill deep into fast-disappearing glaciers?

Victor Zagorodnov remembers the critical moment well: leading a Soviet drilling expedition in 1980, he was out on the ice of the Svalbard islands, Norway’s northernmost territory, in the Arctic Ocean, helping extract ice cores that the team hoped would shed light on Europe’s post-medieval Little Ice Age. As he looked at a glistening, translucent cylinder coming out of the drill tube, it suddenly struck him that he was looking at snow that had fallen when the Vikings were raiding the Baltic coasts. He was hooked.

Zagorodnov would go on to get a doctorate in earth sciences from the Academy of Sciences, making him well equipped to understand and further the art and science of teasing information about the world’s past climates out of ice-core layers. But it turned out that as an EE his special gift was in the design and operation of the crucial equipment needed to extract those cores in the first place. That talent first took him to the U.S. Polar Ice Coring Office (PICO), in Alaska, which is responsible for the development of ice-drilling equipment. Then, 10 years ago, he was hired as a research associate by Lonnie Thompson of Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center in Columbus.

For somebody like Zagorodnov, working in an extremely specialized field where the number of really interesting jobscould be counted on two hands, connecting with Thompson was a dream come true. Thompson was a legend among climate scientists, having done something in the 1970s that the leading ice scientists said absolutely could not be done. On a shoestring budget, he had managed to get to the top of Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap, 5700 meters high. He came back with a dramatic photo of an ice cliff in which the annual layers of ice accumulation were vividly obvious even to the most untrained eye. Later he went back there with a bigger team and drilling equipment and returned home with a detailed history of South America’s climate going back 1500 years.

The reason Thompson needed somebody like Zagorodnov was that by the early 1990s, he had become dissatisfied with the services the Byrd Center obtained from PICO. It emphasized polar work, where big drilling equipment can be flown in on large military transports, while Thompson’s team depended on equipment that could be carried by porters and draft animals to mountain peaks above 6000 meters in the Andes and above 7000 meters in the Himalayas. Thompson already had pretty much concluded that the group needed to be completely self-sufficient in drilling technology, so when his first drilling expert, Bruce Koci, left for another university, he decided Zagorodnov was the person to replace him.

Zagorodnov had developed a reputation among ice drillers for having a good grip on mechanics, excellent intuition, and a solid grounding in mathematics and physics. He was known as a person who could “define a problem and solve it,” says Sigfus Johnsen, an associate professor at the University of Copenhagen, in Denmark, who has worked for decades as a senior member of Danish drilling teams.

Victor Zagorodnov

Age: 54

What he does: Designs lightweight and highly efficient ice-drilling equipment for use at very high altitudes

Where he does it: At Ohio State University’s Byrd Polar Research Center, in Columbus, and “on the fly” on mountain peaks in South and North America, in the Himalayas, and on Mt. Kilimanjaro

Fun factors: Works as an engineer and scientist with the world’s premier team of experts on tropical glaciers; helps advance a science that is revolutionizing knowledge about the earth’s past and future; stretches his physical and mental faculties to the limit under challenging conditions

In some of his early work, Thompson had relied on a solar-powered thermal drill that Koci had developed, a drill that melts its way through the ice rather than cutting. Photovoltaic panels provided electricity that powered a circular heating element at the drill tip. Funding and licensing agencies liked the idea of a drill powered by photovoltaics, but Zagorodnov soon decided that the tradeoffs favored a customized diesel technology to provide the electricity instead. The photovoltaic panels weighed more than a small diesel engine and fuel, and they took precious time to install.

He found that powering his compact thermal drill would require just 2 to 5 kilowatts but that a single generator capable of providing that at high altitude would weigh about 250 kilograms, with the smallest part perhaps 100 kg. Since the weight limit for a pack animal at high altitudes is about 70 kg, Zagorodnov chose to run several small generators in parallel, which also provides some redundancy.

Weight and simplicity are crucial considerations in every element: for example, Zagorodnov is proud of having found a novel brushless alternator that weighs just a third as much as the alternator that ordinarily would be used—and it is 25 percent more efficient.

Drilling into ice looks simple, but it really is subtly complex in many ways. Take the thermal drilling mechanism: as it melts its way down, maintaining a rigorously vertical position, meltwater has to be mixed with antifreeze as it’s extracted so that the waste water doesn’t freeze up the hole. At the same time, the drill hole must be filled with a fluid to maintain pressure and equilibrium concentrations proportional to the ice temperature so that the drill hole doesn’t close over the drill.

Zagorodnov notes that large, hugely expensive drills have gotten stuck on polar expeditions more than once, bringing time-critical operations to a standstill. A couple of years ago, a European group coring in Greenland got into some trouble and called Zagorodnov in to help. The mechanical drill they were using—essentially the same kind developed for oil and gas extraction—was not working well in relatively warm, brittle ice. Zagorodnov helped improvise a solution involving injection of ethanol into the borehole to keep water from freezingand seizing the drill mechanism. This was a technique, notes Johnsen—himself a drilling technology specialist—that Zagorodnov had long advocated as an alternative to the use of Freon, which consumes the earth’s ozone shield.

It was a sweet moment for the Ohio team. The European group was led mainly by Danes, many of them trained by Willi Dansgaard, one of the towering pioneers in ice-core research. It was Dansgaard who had flatly told the U.S. National Science Foundation in the mid-1970s that getting cores from the Quelccaya Ice Cap would be impossible.

At that time, Thompson was trying to find out whether temperature changes near the tropics corresponded to changes recorded at the poles. But in the course of pursuing that issue, he obtained what turned out to be the single most important record of El Niño and La Niña fluctuations over the last 1500 years. As if that weren’t enough, Thompson’s teams have now obtained some of the most dramatic evidence of global warming.

It’s exciting and important work in every way, but in the final analysis, it all depends on Zagorodnov. “[On a glacier,] I’m the tip of the operation,” he once told an Ohio newspaper. “If I fail, everything fails. It is my responsibility to succeed. No one can help me.”

To Probe Further

More information about Victor Zagorodnov’s employer, the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University can be found at

Richard B. Alley, a professor of geosciences at Pennsylvania State University, provides an excellent general account of ice climatology in The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future, Princeton University Press, 2000.

A somewhat more technical history of ice-core science and technology is to be found in Willi Dansgaard’s recent memoir, Frozen Annals, Greenland Ice Sheet Research, Copenhagen, Department of Geophysics of the Niels Bohr Institute at the University of Copenhagen, 2004.

Time magazine science writer J. Madeleine Nash offers a readable account of Lonnie Thompson’s work in Peru in Chapter 3 of El Nino: Unlocking the Secrets of the Master Weather-Maker, Warner Books, 2000.

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