Study of ice core samples deposited over millennia reveal that climate change can be very rapid, happening in a matter of decades
Ice core storage facility at the NICL
By Jenney Coberly
Deep in the frozen vault of the National Ice Core Laboratory in Lakewood, Colorado, pieces of ice up to nearly a half a million years old are helping researchers unravel the mysteries of climate change. The ice samples were collected in Antarctica and Greenland. They are part of one of the world’s largest collections of ice cores in a program funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Geological Survey.
Antarctica and Greenland have layers of snow and ice preserved in thick glaciers over hundreds of thousands of years. Through studies of the ice cores extracted by drilling thousands of meters into these glaciers, scientists can create mathematical models of Earth’s climate history. They’ve discovered extreme climate swings in Earth’s past, some of which occurred very rapidly, in less than a decade.
Ice core samples provide information on atmospheric composition, temperature and other climate data in a very long and continuous record, making them one of the most important tools for climate researchers.
“It’s very important in climate change research to know just what time is represented by a particular thickness in an ice core,” said former ice core lab director and USGS climate scientist Todd Hinkley. “It doesn’t really do you much good to say, ‘Well, we went in pretty deep, so this must be old’. You’ve got to be precise about it, and the ice cores do allow this. This is their strength as a scientific research tool.”
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