Scientists in Antarctica hope to retrieve 1.5-million-year-old ice to find clues about climate change
TORONTO -- Researchers have come from 10 countries to Antarctica to begin the first stages of an ambitious plan -- drilling deeper into the ice than ever before to reach back 1.5 million years, and find key clues that could aid in the struggle with climate change.
It’s called the Beyond EPICA Project, and is a continuation of a project that first started around 20 years ago.
Then, it was simply EPICA — the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica. That project, which ended in 2008, obtained an ice record that went back 800,000 years, a crucial discovery revealing for the first time that the current concentration of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere at that time was higher than it had ever been in the past 800,000 years.
“Now we are trying to travel back further in time: because if we are to gain a correct perspective on what the world is currently experiencing with climate change, and adopt suitable mitigating strategies, we must look back even further — which is what we are trying to do in Antarctica with Beyond Epica,” Carlo Barbante, director of the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council of Italy and co-ordinator of the project, said in a press release.
Scientists will be working at a camp more than 3,000 metres above sea level, labouring under temperatures around -35 degrees Celsius.
Although the field camp for the project was established at Little Dome C in east Antarctica during the 2019-2020 season of field research, the following year’s season was cancelled due to COVID-19 restrictions. Now, this November, researchers have finally been able to start their work, with hopes of installing and testing the drilling system by the end of the field season in January. This November-to-January stretch marks only the first drilling campaign of what is set to be a seven-year project.
The team will also be constructing a “temporary storage cave in the snow” that will house the first ice samples and protect them from the elements. When the team finally begins to drill into the ice, researchers are aiming to core deeper at a rate of around 170 metres per week.
But how will this project tell us about the planet’s climate?
A trailer for the Beyond EPICA project posted in 2020 to the project’s YouTube channel explains that Earth has regularly cycled through drastic temperature changes in its lifespan.
“Over the last three million years, the Earth’s climate has oscillated between cold and warm periods,” the trailer stated. “However, due to human activity, temperatures are very likely to soon reach unprecedented levels. In order to understand what is happening at the moment and to prepare for what the future holds, we need to understand more about the factors that cause climate oscillation.”
Antarctica’s vast ice is actually made up of layers that have accumulated over hundreds of thousands of years, with each layer containing something essential to understanding the climate of the past: air bubbles.
These air bubbles hold a record of the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere during all those years. Researchers will be able to analyze the amount of greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide in these samples of deep ice, and apply that data to the current evolution of temperature.
And by looking back 1.5 million years, scientists will be able, for the first time, to examine a period of time in which there was a major transition in ice age cycles, something that is still a source of questions for scientists.
“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 (MPT), which happened between 900,000 and 1.2 million years ago,” Barbante said in the release.
“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 idea is that by looking at the climate record of such a major transition, we may glean important information about how the carbon cycle interacts with these types of large climate shifts, ultimately helping us predict future climate changes, design mitigation strategies, and even, perhaps, understand how to survive the coming changes in our current climate.
The project is funded by 11 million euros supplied by the European Commission, and includes several international institutions.
Dr. Robert Mulvaney, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, the U.K. partner of the project, stated in a separate press release that he believed they had chosen the best site to drill for the coveted “oldest ice core,” a process he was involved with from 2016-2018.
“BAS contributed its DELORES radar to the search for the ideal site, collecting over 2400 km of over-snow radar to characterize the bedrock topography and the age structure of the ice,” he said.
“Time will tell whether we have chosen well, and it may take us four years to drill to the bed, but I am confident that we will recover ice substantially older than the 800,000-years record previously retrieved from Dome C itself, 35 km distant from the new site.”