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Researchers Looking At Ice To Answer Questions About Climate Change

Courtesy of the University of Washington
Glaciologist T.J. Fuge works with a section of ice mined from the South Pole.

Ancient gas bubbles preserved in ice are helping scientists figure out what the Earth’s atmosphere was like 40,000 years ago, and how it might change in the future.

The data is coming from a core of ice that resembles a PVC pipe. When the drilling is completed, almost a mile of ice will have been extracted from this inland site in western Antarctica.

T.J. Fudge, a glaciologist with the University of Washington, is there right now and says scientists will collect the gases housed in the ice by crushing the ice under a vacuum in a lab at the National Ice Core in Denver, Colorado.

“So you can drill an ice core and you can look back at the chemistry of our atmosphere in the past. This is how we know that the carbon dioxide levels that are in our atmosphere today are higher than anything the Earth has experienced in the last 800,000 years,” Fudge said.

Fudge says by understanding how the carbon cycle works and how the circulation of the ocean has changed through time, scientists will have a better idea of how today’s climate will interact with greenhouse gasses emitted by the burning of fossil fuel.

To drill the ice, Fudge and his team work in temperatures hovering around negative 22 degrees Fahrenheit. They wear three layers of long underwear over fleece pants, as well as face masks and goggles.

Shipping the ice involves multiple steps. First, it is loaded onto a plane. From there is goes onto a cargo ship that will take it to California. For the last leg of the trip, the ice is loaded onto trucks that will then head to Denver.      

Jennifer Wing is a former KNKX reporter and producer who worked on the show Sound Effect and Transmission podcast.