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April 23, 2014

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From desert to Antarctica: Searching for climate clues

Nevadan heads team studying ancient ice core

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COURTESY DESERT RESEARCH INSTITUTE

Desert Research Institute scientist Kendrick Taylor stands in front of the snow pit wall at the West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Ice Core Project in Antarctica. The wall is part of a study of layers of ice thousands of years old.

Antarctic Ice Cores

Hundreds of miles inland on Earth's coldest, windiest continent, the snow-covered terrain is flat and vast, the sky, huge. Antarctica, sprawling across the planet's southernmost reaches, has no arable land, no permanent residents. A team of researchers led by Desert Research Institute scientist Kendrick Taylor is engaged in a multi-million dollar project to extract and analyze an 11,000-foot column of ice from Antarctica, an undertaking that will reveal new information about how the planet's climate evolved over the last 100,000 years. (Read the story).

Hundreds of miles inland on Earth’s coldest, windiest continent, the snow-covered terrain is flat and vast, the sky huge.

Antarctica, sprawling across the planet’s southernmost reaches, has no arable land, no true permanent residents. Winter brings perpetual darkness.

And it’s this strange world, largely untouched by humans, that could yield some of the most telling clues about how man’s activity could alter Earth’s climate.

A team of researchers led by Desert Research Institute scientist Kendrick Taylor is engaged in a $30 million to $50 million project to extract and analyze an 11,360-foot column of ice from Antarctica, an undertaking that will reveal new information about how the planet’s climate has evolved over the past 100,000 years.

By studying layers of dust, chemicals and air trapped inside the column, known as an ice core, scientists will create a record of environmental conditions.

Knowing what happened in the past will help us determine what could happen in the future.

But unlocking Earth’s ancient secrets is no easy task.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Ice Core Project, or WAIS Divide, is a massive undertaking involving researchers from about 30 laboratories across the United States. By 2014, when the project is complete, more than two decades will have elapsed since Taylor and his colleagues began talking informally about the endeavor over dinner and beers.

•••

When ice core researchers in the United States began discussing the concept in about 1990, teams from America and Europe were already drilling to retrieve deep ice cores from Greenland.

A corresponding sample from Antarctica would allow scientists to compare historical conditions of the planet’s southern and northern extremes, providing clues to where climate changes originate.

A southern core also would allow researchers to study past levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Greenland’s ice is dustier than Antarctica’s, and dust mixes with other materials to create extraneous carbon dioxide in ice, complicating efforts to take useful measurements.

Despite early excitement over an Antarctic project, the endeavor had to wait. Researchers needed to wrap up other studies before pursuing a major new enterprise.

“It wasn’t until really about 2000,” Taylor said, “that we kind of went from the ‘Gee, wouldn’t it be fun’ stage to ‘OK, it’s time to get serious about doing this.’ ”

Over the next several years, under Taylor’s leadership, ice core scientists nationwide prepared for drilling. They put together proposals for the National Science Foundation, which agreed to bankroll the project.

Engineers and technicians from the University of Wisconsin-Madison designed an electromechanical drill to retrieve sections of cylindrical ice 122 millimeters in diameter, or about 4 3/4 inches.

In the waning months of 2005, during Antarctica’s summer, the project’s first team set up camp on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet about 700 miles from the South Pole.

The pioneers established a ski-way on which military-style supply planes could land. They began construction on facilities such as an arch-shaped building to house the drill.

Finally, late last year, researchers were ready to begin deep drilling.

“I cannot give you words that would express how satisfying it is to see these things finally come to fruition,” said James White, a principal investigator on the project and interim director of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

•••

“You’d be walking to breakfast and you’d be looking around and say, ‘Holy (expletive), I’m in Antarctica.’ It’s just crazy to be in such a remote place,” said Sylvia Englund, a technician at White’s institute who returned from the WAIS Divide camp last month. “You just feel pretty lucky to be there ... It was really beautiful in its vastness, and the sky would do amazing things, with crazy clouds.

“It had this serene beauty that you wouldn’t get to experience everywhere.”

Englund was one of about 60 people, including scientists, cooks and mechanics, working at WAIS Divide in the 2007-08 field season. The camp operates for only a few months, during the Antarctic summer. Researchers will return each of the next three years to continue their work.

On-site in Antarctica, men and women worked round-the-clock in the 24-hour daylight, recovering and packing sections of the ice core in plastic sleeves. Scientists sent the frozen samples by plane to McMurdo, a research station on the Antarctic coast. From there, the cores traveled by ship to California and by truck to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver.

At the Antarctic camp, life was busy. But in free moments team members swapped stories, played cribbage and went cross-country skiing. Each person slept in a personal tent. The temperatures were often in the single digits.

Sundays were the only days off, so on Saturday evenings, people dug into their private liquor stashes — one of the only necessities not paid for with federal money.

“We get beer, we get wine, we get hard alcohol,” Taylor said. “We bring that down there. People are usually really good about that.”

Englund, who was married in September, said although she missed her husband while overseas, she would love to spend another season in Antarctica.

“You just learn from all the people,” she said. “It’s a different kind of person that ends up down there, people who are willing to brave difficult conditions just to be in a remote corner of the Earth, people who aren’t daunted by standing around in freezing-cold temperatures just to get data that’s going to help them solve problems.”

•••

The main photograph on a Web page dedicated to public outreach for the WAIS Divide project shows yellow-orange tents scattered across a snow-covered expanse. The ground and sky, both a pale, icy blue, seem to blend together.

Taylor describes the area around the camp as “a vast, frozen ocean, with nothing on the horizon in any direction at all.”

But the information that lies beneath the surface of this seemingly sparse world could change the way we think about our planet.

Summer and winter snows in Antarctica contain different amounts of sea salt and dust. By measuring variations, scientists can identify the difference between layers of summer and winter snows, and thus the difference between snow that fell in different years.

That knowledge will help project scientists establish a year-by-year record of Antarctic temperatures for the past 40 millenniums. They’ll also be able to determine global greenhouse gas levels for blocks of time 20-40 years in length.

Drawing meaningful conclusions from the research will require close collaboration between scientists across the country.

A Desert Research Institute lab in Reno will measure the amount of dust in the ice core. White’s lab in Colorado will measure isotopes of hydrogen and oxygen in the ice. A lab in Oregon will measure levels of carbon dioxide and other gases.

Taken together, their work and that of other laboratories will provide a clearer picture of the Earth’s environmental history than we have today. Information from the team, which will continue publishing findings through 2014, could be used to improve computer models that predict how human activity will alter our surroundings.

“It’s exciting to work on a topic that is really relevant to society,” Taylor said.

Tanya Zastrow, who did weather observations for incoming planes during the camp’s inaugural season, said she, too, was proud to contribute to the science. Every cook, carpenter and pilot who helped was integral to the enterprise’s success, and Zastrow viewed her job, however small, as part of “a larger project.”

Journeying to Antarctica, a place so inhospitable to humanity, is a reminder of how powerful the forces of nature are, Taylor said.

The continent holds about 90 percent of the ice on Earth, and even if a small proportion of that melts, sea levels could rise enough to drown whole cities.

Since researchers began discussing WAIS Divide, human society has undergone dramatic changes. Wars began and ended. New countries came into being. The world’s estimated population rose from about 5.3 billion to about 6.7 billion.

With so much at stake, it’s critical that people have access to more information about the planet on which they live, White said.

Although he’s proud of what WAIS Divide scientists are accomplishing, “I would very much like to see us find a way that we could be doing this in a more timely fashion,” he said. “I think this kind of information we produce has enormous societal relevance.

“The information that we produce,” he said, “we need it faster than every 10 years.”

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