Deepest freeze: OSU prof part of record-setting ice core drill in Antarctica

Deepest freeze: OSU prof part of record-setting ice core drill in Antarctica
Ed Brook, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University, is an international expert in the study of ancient ice cores, such as this one from studies done in Greenland. (Photo courtesy of Oregon State University)

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers in Antarctica last week completed the longest ice core ever drilled by U.S. scientists, a 10,928-foot column with some ice up to 100,000 years old, which will give experts some of the best data they’ve ever obtained to answer key questions about past climate changes.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Ice Core project, funded by the Office of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation over the past five years, is an impressive accomplishment and an important step forward for climate science, said Ed Brook, a professor of geosciences at Oregon State University and one of the principal investigators on the project.

“The whole team is very excited,” Brook said. “These are very clean and detailed ice samples that will allow us to literally count off the time, like with tree rings, more than 40,000 years into the past. This will capture data on several abrupt climate changes that took place during that time, a number of warming and cooling episodes. >>> Photo Gallery

“With it, we hope to better understand ocean temperatures, atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide and climate patterns elsewhere in the world,” Brook said. “It’s going to provide a much more precise picture of how carbon dioxide and climate change really interact.”

The study of past climate – made possible primarily by analyzing the trace gases trapped in ancient bubbles in the ice formed tens of thousands of years ago – is part of what allows scientists to predict how atmospheric changes today, such as the increase in greenhouse gases, may affect future climate.

Of particular interest, in research being done at OSU and elsewhere, is how the Earth’s climate has changed dramatically in comparatively short periods of time at some points in the past – tens or hundreds of years instead of thousands.

To get ice core samples that will help answer such questions is not easy.

“This was really a heroic effort over a number of years,” Brook said. “You can only drill for two or three months during the Antarctic summer, when it’s stormy, still terribly cold and you can get a lot of drifting snow. The cores come up one piece at a time and it’s just slow, difficult work.”

Samples from Antarctica, Brook said, will provide data that can be matched to ice taken from Greenland cores and provide more of a global perspective, as well as validation of the Greenland work.

And although it may take three years or more to finish all the analysis of them, these cores should provide more specific detail than any obtained before.

This project has been coordinated by the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nev., and the University of New Hampshire, and many institutions have been involved in the work, including OSU, the University of Washington, University of California at San Diego, University of Colorado, University of Maine and others. More detail on the project can be obtained online at http://www.waisdivide.unh.edu/

This is the second deepest ice core ever drilled, researchers say, and the longest one ever done by U.S. scientists. The only longer one was done by Russian researchers working in East Antarctica. The site for this project was chosen because it is unusually thick and also comparatively stable, not having moved or flowed as much as other Antarctic ice.