News & information on Antarctica & the Southern Ocean

Searching for the oldest ice on Earth in Antarctica

Photo: Alfred Wegener Institut, Robert Ricken

A team of Antarctic Indiana Jonses are searching for the oldest ice on earth – in one of the most hostile environments on the planet. The European scientists, part of a research consortium from 10 European countries including Britain, Germany, France, Italy and Norway, will head to East Antarctica to search for a suitable site to drill an ice core to capture ice samples dating back 1.5 million years.


The project, Beyond EPICA – Oldest Ice, will answer important questions about big shifts in the past record of Earth’s climate. And how will they do it? Air bubbles. By extracting and analysing the air in tiny bubbles trapped in the ancient ice, researchers are hoping to figure out how the atmosphere’s composition has changed over time. 


Snow crystals photographed with a macro lens. Photo: Alfred Wegener Institut, Stefan Hendricks.


Ancient ice to unlock climate record going back 1.5 million years

Dr Robert Mulvaney, an ice core scientist from British Antarctic Survey, who is involved in the site survey, explains that a previous study in the early 2000s gave researchers a climate record going back as far as 800,000 years. The Beyond EPICA project seeks to double that.


“We want to double the length of that record to investigate an important shift in Earth’s climate around one million years ago, when the planet’s climate cycle between cold glacial conditions and warmer interludes changed from being dominated by a 41,000-year pattern to a 100,000 year cycle,” says Mulvaney.


Understanding what controlled this shift in the Earth’s glacial cycles, and whether increasing carbon dioxide levels played a part, along with factors such as changes in the Earth’s rotational tilt, will help scientists to understand better how ice sheets will behave as the world warms.


“We need to understand the interaction between the Earth’s atmosphere and climate in very different conditions in the past if we are to be sure we can predict the future climate response to increasing greenhouse gases.  There is no other place on Earth that retains such a long a record of the past atmosphere other than the Antarctic ice sheet, and it is tremendously exciting to be embarking now on the journey to recover this record.”


Once a suitable drilling site is found, scientists will embark on a second phase multi-year project to extract an ice core at a depth of nearly three kilometres, using traditional ice core drilling technology. Laboratories across Europe will then analyse the ice to determine how the climate and the atmosphere have interacted over the past 1.5 million years.


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