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Secrets of the Ice: How Glaciers Reveal the Story of the Earth

A glaciologist taking a sample from a glacier

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The primary time Alison Criscitiello noticed glaciers in Montana’s Glacier Nationwide Park as a center faculty scholar, she was hooked. “I had learned about glaciers in a geology unit in class — but they didn’t seem real,” Criscitiello says. However that summer time she “became fanatical” about ice.

At first Criscitiello was interested in the frozen terrain as a climber, and she or he labored as a park ranger and large mountain information in the Andes, Alaska, and the Himalaya. However as her curiosity in science developed, it was a want to know the position ice performs in regulating and recording the international local weather that led her to earn the first Ph.D. in glaciology ever conferred by MIT.

“Our Earth records its history in ice. It’s this huge story that’s already been written, and it’s just lying there, waiting to be pulled out,” says Criscitiello, who’s gone on to develop into a College of Calgary adjunct assistant professor and the technical director of the Canadian Ice Core Archive.

A glaciologist taking a sample from a glacier's ice core.Core competence: Samples have to be drilled in areas chilly sufficient in order that deep layers stay undisturbed. (Courtesy Alison Criscitiello)

The potential to extract the planet’s local weather story from a piece of frozen water is present in a department of earth science referred to as ice core science — a self-discipline that has its roots in the post-World Struggle II period when researchers have been plunging into jungles, scaling mountains, probing the sea, and getting ready to go to area. In the 1950s, French glaciologist Claude Lorius was learning Antarctica. It was there that a well-timed glass of whiskey led to a profound concept.

Lorius recounts in the 2015 documentary Antarctica: Ice and the Sky that he took some ice from a core pattern and dropped it in a glass of his favourite whiskey. Savouring his drink, he observed bubbles rising out of the ice because it melted. It all of a sudden struck him that the bubbles have to be tiny bits of air from that long-ago time once they have been frozen into the ice.

Glaciologists prepare an glacier's ice core for preservationLibrary of ice: Glacier core samples from throughout are preserved for research. (Courtesy Alison Criscitiello)

Falling snow accommodates small air pockets that lure atmospheric gases. The snow additionally collects something blown in by the wind, together with volcanic ash, air pollution, and sea salt. In the coldest locations on Earth, similar to at the poles and in the excessive mountains, this snow by no means melts. As an alternative, it’s buried underneath every subsequent layer of snow, progressively compressing the layers into ice and saving a report of the day it fell.

As soon as Lorius realized there might be info locked in the ice, scientists started creating the information, expertise, and technical gear essential to decode what it needed to say. First they found a mechanism by which previous temperatures might be deduced from ice crystals — by deciphering this, Lorius realized that scientists might start to reconstruct half of the Earth’s previous local weather.

“The climate of the earth and how it’s changing impacts every being on the planet.”

By the 1970s, the Earth’s basic local weather fashions have been beginning to present a brand new and puzzling sample. It appeared that carbon dioxide (CO₂) emissions have been altering the climate, and that the planet was turning into hotter. Glaciologists realized these tiny air bubbles in the planet’s glacial ice might include the info wanted to measure whether or not CO₂ ranges had risen since preindustrial occasions. What adopted was a collaborative worldwide effort to extract deep ice cores from Antarctica and Greenland, together with many shorter cores from mountain glaciers round the world.

In 1984, Lorius obtained a pattern of the Vostok core, which had been drilled to over 2,000 meters deep (about 6,560 ft) and revealed details about the planet going again 420,000 years. As the cores have been studied, scientists found that CO₂ and international temperature have been linked by way of time. When CO₂ ranges have been excessive, the planet has been heat; when the ranges have been particularly low, glaciers coated the Earth.

An ice flow drifts near Mt. Brown South in AntarcticaGo together with the floe: Mt. Brown South, Antarctica. (Courtesy Alison Criscitiello)

Revealed in 1999 in Nature journal, Lorius’s analysis modified our understanding of the planet’s local weather. The analysis additionally confirmed one thing deeply alarming: Traditionally, variations in atmospheric CO₂ ranges have made solely gradual rises and drops in the planet’s temperature, however since the Industrial Revolution, atmospheric CO₂ ranges have risen at an unprecedented fee.

Science has been described as a cooperative endeavor during which many scientists work on small elements of a puzzle and collectively attempt to produce the most correct attainable picture of how issues at the moment are, or as soon as have been, or can be. For this reason a scientific concept isn’t actually completed. In the case of local weather change, the broad idea of warming that was first put ahead by Lorius and his friends continues to be being refined and expanded on day-after-day by youthful scientists like Criscitiello.

“With the development of ground-penetrating radar and other technological advances, it is no longer best practice to just pick a place and drill,” Criscitiello explains. “We now know there’s lots of information to gather first to assist in locating ideal ice core drill sites.”

By working in locations as ruggedly far-flung as Mt. Brown in Antarctica, the Agassiz Ice Cap on northern Ellesmere Island, and Mt. Logan in Canada — Criscitiello actually travels to the ends of the Earth in search of ice and knowledge. Counting on each high-tech transport — planes, icebreakers, high-altitude helicopters, snowcats — and lower-tech choices like skis and fat-wheeled bicycles, the scientific groups hunt down ice sheets that meet very particular standards. For instance, outdoors the polar areas, it’s important to find a cold-enough place with tons of snow, ideally with as near zero motion as potential so the layers stay undisturbed. “Some things to look for in the data are clear layers and near-zero horizontal ice flow velocity,” says Criscitiello. Principally they search for ice that’s nonetheless the place it was when the snow first fell, solely deeper. When ice strikes, it may possibly shear and fold very similar to rock can, distorting the data it incorporates.

After first digging a trench in the snow and readying the drill website, the scientists extract hockey-puck-width cores in one-meter lengths, that are labelled and punctiliously saved in particular insulated delivery bins for transport to the lab. In some locations, 100 meters (328 ft) of core covers about 1,000 years.

Again at the lab, samples from the cores are dated and examined. In the shallow half of the core, scientists can rely years in accordance with layers of snow. Criscitiello says it’s thrilling when she locates one thing particular in the document, like the ash from a recognized volcanic explosion. She explains that volcanic occasions every have distinctive “fingerprints,” and the findings can corroborate different courting methods.

Aerial view of Mt. Logan's glacier.The large image: Learning the planet’s previous is vital to figuring out easy methods to adapt to modifications which will happen in the future, say glaciologists. (Shutterstock)

From there, extra detailed analysis is feasible. Every core accommodates monumental info, together with air temperature historical past, atmospheric circumstances, commerce wind patterns, and sea ice composition. Every new set of checks provides scientists one other piece of the puzzle detailing what mechanisms drive pure local weather change and the way human exercise has altered this course of.

Whereas analysis is ongoing, the bulk of the ice is entered into the archives. In Alberta, this big frozen library is stored at –40 levels Fahrenheit, and the “books” quantity to 1.5 kilometers (zero.9 miles) of ice which were preserved from such websites as the Devon Ice Cap, Agassiz Ice Cap, Penny Ice Cap, Prince of Wales Icefield, and Mt. Logan.

Scientists say the significance of this sort of archive can’t be overstated. Whilst ice core science know-how improves, and we perceive increasingly more of what the ice can inform us, glaciers in lots of places on Earth are melting at an unprecedented fee. Criscitiello says there are locations in the Canadian excessive Arctic that at the moment are experiencing temperatures above zero° Celsius (32°F). “When these smaller ice caps experience surface melt, it can alter the chemistry within the snowpack.” She explains that for such locations which have by no means been drilled, the local weather data are already misplaced.

The danger now’s that “the glaciers, the raw material for the ideas of tomorrow, will disappear,” Ice Reminiscence undertaking coordinator Jérôme Chappellaz informed Wired journal in December 2016. In a collaborative effort with UNESCO, scientists with the challenge are assembling ice cores from round the world. Chappellaz stated that in the future, these heritage ice cores will probably be studied utilizing new concepts and capabilities and can hopefully higher present us how human exercise is reshaping our world.

A view of a tongue-shaped sheet of ice at the Illecillewaet Glacier in British Columbia's Glacier National Park.Uplifting expertise: Glacier Nationwide Park in British Columbia was one of the first stops for the younger glaciologists of the Women on Ice Canada expedition. Proven right here is the “great tongue” of the Illecillewaet Glacier. (Shutterstock)

In a race towards the melting, scientists like Criscitiello are heading to the most distant frozen locations of the world to construct up our library of ice cores. Troublesome journeys that in the previous weren’t attainable, like her upcoming one to Canada’s Mt. Logan scheduled over 2019 and 2020, tackle much more significance as scientists hunt down new cores which will include delicate regional info not obtainable anyplace else.

The opposite problem Criscitiello and scientists face is discovering grants and funding for complicated analysis, which can solely add fragments of info to the present physique of scientific information. Criscitiello explains that whereas her personal work is usually targeted on one timeframe and on one pinpoint on the Earth, when it’s mixed with different work, the patterns emerge. “When you step back, you see the planet as a whole,” she says.

Glaciologists clarify that deciphering the most full model potential of our planet’s recorded story is important. Not solely might this ease our transition right into a future that scientists are simply starting to foretell, however studying extra about how the planet works is one of the solely instruments we have now for figuring out how we adapt to local weather change in the future. “The climate of the Earth and how it’s changing impacts every being on the planet,” Criscitiello says.

Diane Selkirk’s final article for the Submit was “Found Family” in the March/April 2018 situation. For extra, go to

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