Cold Case

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Melting ice cores. Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

Melting ice cores.
Source: Jacquelyn Hams/PolarTrec

It might seem like the project to take ice to Antarctica is the very definition of redundancy. Like taking coal to Newcastle or turning on the lawn sprinkler while it’s raining.

But this ice endeavor is more like trying to archive some of the world’s most ancient books even as the ink rapidly vanishes from all the pages.

Ice from the world’s glaciers contains a wealth of information about the planet’s history.

Samples taken from glaciers around the world can be used to create computer models of past climates and how the climate has changed over time. Many samples have been taken at sites in Antarctica and Greenland – but far fewer have been analyzed at the various glaciers around the world.

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear. Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

A picture of a thin section of glacier ice placed between two crossed polarizers. The different orientation of the individual crystals shows up as colour differences. The ice itself is clear.
Caption/Image: Centre of Ice & Climate, Univ. of Copenhagen

Comparing polar ice, which can be hundreds of the thousands of years old, to glacial ice from mountains can reveal the impact of human activity.

CO2, human-generated pollutants, pollen: Whether it’s on the Andes, the Alps, the Rocky Mountains, or the Himalayas, whatever was in the air and water when a glacial layer formed is trapped and frozen in place – at least, until the ice melts.

And as everyone knows by now, the ice is melting.

“In some of the warmer areas of the world the surface water is starting to melt. It then trickles all the way through the ice, taking with it the information from the surface so it’s smearing out any record that we might be able to take from the past,” Robert Mulvaney, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey, explained to the BBC.

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.  Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

A drilling tent set-up at the Dôme mountain pass, at an altitude of 4,250m, on the summit of Mont Blanc. In 2016, ice cores will be collected from there and transported to Antarctica for storage.
Photo: Bruno Jourdain, LGGE/OSUG/UJF

The first ice cores will come from the Col du Dome, a glacier research site that sits at 4350 m (14,200 ft), just below the summit of Mont Blanc in France. The French National Centre for Scientific Research, part of the new ice storage project, measured temperatures inside the Col du Dome glacier in 1994 and again in 2005, and found a rise of 1.5°C.

Commercial freezer storage would be an interim option, but in the long-term, could be prohibitive in terms of cost as well as the potential for disastrous power failures.

The new Antarctic archive for glacial cores is set to be established at the Concordia Research Station, a French-Italian base that is manned year-round.

The archive itself will consist of ice cores sealed in bags, and stored in a giant frozen trench 10 m below the surface at a steady temperature of -50°C.

The hope is that this will keep the archive safe for future research over the course of the next decades and perhaps even centuries.

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample. Source: USGS

Air bubbles (left) and ice crystals (right) in an ice core sample.
Source: USGS

Of course, the main challenge to the project – besides warming glaciers – is funding. The glacier archiving project, by definition, will not be yielding the kind of short-term results so popular among funding agencies and governments.

In a way, it’s fitting that the focus on short-term results and benefits is the main hurdle to keeping the glacier ice cores cold – after all, a focus on short-term benefits and profits is part of why the glaciers are rapidly melting in the first place.

 

 

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