APR 05, 2019 8:03 AM PDT

What can a 1.5-million-year-old ice core tell us?

WRITTEN BY: Tiffany Dazet

After two years of extensive research, a team of international researchers has determined the exact location from which they will extract ancient ice samples, dated to be 1.5 million years of age—older than anything ever uncovered before. The Beyond EPICA-Oldest Ice (BE-OI) project aims to reveal more about the planet’s ancient climate while understanding more about the future of Earth’s climate. The team includes climate scientists from 14 institutions of 10 European Countries.

The drilling, which is not slated to begin until June of next year, will take place in an area of East Antarctica known as little Dome C where the ice is estimated to be 2.75 kilometers (1.6 mi.) thick. A press release from the British Antarctic Survey in 2016, when BE-OI initiated, cited Dome C as “one of the most hostile environments on the planet, and average annual temperatures are below -54 degrees Celsius.” Principal investigator and climate scientist Carlo Barbante predicts that it will take four years to complete the drilling. 

Credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Ice cores are cylindrical samples taken from ice sheets or high mountain glaciers. The layers within the samples are a record of what the Earth was like during the creation of that layer. The ice holds particles such as dust, ash, and pollen as well as small pockets of atmosphere. These air pockets allow scientists to measure the amount of greenhouse gases that was in the atmosphere when that layer formed.

Previous deep ice cores drilled by EPICA cover 800,000 years of climate and greenhouse-gas history. These cores demonstrated eight pronounced glacial cycles, each of which lasted up to 100,000 years. This new core will nearly double the climate record and extend to the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, which occurred one million years ago. Before this transition, glaciations happened every 40,000 years rather than 100,000, according to marine sediment records. Barbante told Nature that “a 1.5-million-year-old ice core will provide clues to what caused the transition—a major question in Earth and climate sciences.” This information will allow scientists to predict how ice sheets will behave in our warming world.

A press conference will be held next week (April 9) by the European Geosciences Union to share more specific information about the next steps of BE-OI.

Sources: Nature, British Antarctic Survey, The Science Times

About the Author
BS Biology
Tiffany grew up in Southern California, where she attended San Diego State University. She graduated with a degree in Biology with a marine emphasis, thanks to her love of the ocean and wildlife. With 13 years of science writing under her belt, she now works as a freelance writer in the Pacific Northwest.
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