The “eternal” ice of Antarctica is not simply a white-blue mass of frozen water. For climate researchers, the ice forms a huge data archive that maps the climatic history of our planet. And the further down you go into the ice layers, the older the containing climate information becomes. The European “Beyond EPICA – Oldest Ice” project aims to obtain ice cores that provide a glimpse of 1.5 million years of Earth’s climate history. Now the researchers have successfully completed the first stage on this journey.
According to the project leader, Professor Carlo Barbante, director of the Italian Polar Research Institute, the European team has achieved its goals for the leg launched since late November. The construction of the camp “Little Dome C”, the installation of the complex drilling system and the establishment of a laboratory for the ice cores were the essential goals of the project. In addition, the team was able to advance to a depth of 130 meters and obtain the first ice cores for analysis. “We are very satisfied with the work done so far,” explains Carlo Barbante. “Our next campaign will involve a final testing of the drilling system and then speedily proceeding to conduct deep drilling.”
The drilling site, which is expected to provide the project team with a view of climate up to 1.5 million years old, is located about 34 kilometers from the French-Italian Concordia station in the middle of Dome C and about 3,230 meters above sea level. During the next summer seasons, 15 people here plan to go further and further into the depths of the Antarctic ice sheet to get a more accurate picture of past global climate. Thereby, the drilling system forms the heart of the camp. Embedded in a special tent, the team consisting of Italians, French, Swiss and Germans intends to penetrate to a depth of around 2,700 meters in the coming summer seasons and collect ice cores. “We are fitting the top 120 meters with fiberglass tubing. We use this casing as a starting point for the actual deep drilling,” explains Professor Frank Wilhelms from AWI, who is planning and organizing the drilling.
The cores, each 4.5 meters long, are then prepared and stored in the specially built laboratory and afterwards examined in partner laboratories. The goal: to determine the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere from the respective ages and to draw conclusions about the climate that prevailed at that time. “We believe this ice core will give us information on the climate of the past and on the greenhouse gases that were in the atmosphere during the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, which happened between 900,000 and 1.2 million years ago,” Carlo Barbante continues. “During this transition, climate periodicity between ice ages changed from 41,000 to 100,000 years: the reason why this happened is the mystery we hope to solve.”
The cores now obtained are just the beginning and will first map the last 3,000 years of climate history. However, this gives researchers a way to accurately match the data with other climate data for verification. The further “Beyond EPICA” goes into depth after that, the more exciting the data will be. The oldest ice core so far provides data up to about 800,000 years back in time. With the new data, the team hopes to not only gain a glimpse into the past, but also provide data for predicting Earth’s climatic future. Because sometimes it’s worth digging deep and taking a look back to better see what lies ahead.
Dr Michael Wenger, PolarJournal
Link to project website: Beyond EPICA
More on the subject: