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WAIS camp tent drifted over with snow.
Photo Credit: David Ferris/WAIS Divide Web site
Snowdrifts bury at building at the WAIS Divide field camp. The high accumulation rate makes the site ideal for taking an ice core because of the relatively thick annual layers. Scientists need for the layers to be at least 1 centimeter thick to see year-to-year changes in climate.

Many goals

In fact, most of the ice core research takes place off the Ice, back in the researchers’ home laboratories. It’s simply too expensive to do the science directly in the field.

One of the few measurements made on site involves measuring the electrical conductivity of the ice, a characteristic controlled by its chemistry, which can tell the scientists the season in which the snow fell because different seasons have different chemical properties.

“We use that to identify the annual layers in the ice,” Taylor explained. “We do that in the field because that’s when the core quality is the best. It’s pretty easy to make that measurement as well.”

There are about 40 NSF-funded projects associated with the WAIS Divide program. Many involve analyzing greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and methane. Together the projects will help answer not only questions surrounding what scientist refer to as climate forcing from greenhouse gases, but the role of Antarctica in abrupt climate change, as well as the stability of the marine-based ice sheet in the past.

Closeup of ice core in a drill barrel.
Photo Credit: Kendrick Taylor
A closeup of an ice core inside a drill barrel.

For example, from an ice core drilled in Greenland in the early 1990s, called GISP2 External Non-U.S. government site, scientists determined there had been a series of abrupt climate changes, radical swings in the space of only a few decades. “We know we’re not going to see anything that abrupt down there in Antarctica, but we’re interested in getting a really good record so we can absolutely confirm that nothing that abrupt happened,” Taylor said.

One of the key goals of the project — almost unique in glaciology — will be the study of biological signals in the ice. Scientists have found living organisms hundreds and thousands of meters down in the ice sheet

“We’ve published a series of papers now showing that the ice sheet is alive potentially. There’s a lot of bacteria in it,” explained John Priscu External Non-U.S. government site, a professor at Montana State University External Non-U.S. government site in Bozeman and a veteran polar researcher who studies the microbial processes in the ice-covered lakes of the McMurdo Dry Valleys External U.S. government site.

The WAIS Divide program is the first glaciological project to include biology in its science plan, according to Priscu. “We’re in our infancy for sure. We’re the first biologists to be doing glaciology.

“We’re still in a bit of the discovery phase from the biological perspective,” he added. “We’re not sure what we can learn yet. We know there’s biology there, but we haven’t linked it in any cohesive fashion with the paleoclimate or geochemical data.”

The first meters of core were just reaching laboratories across the United States and around the globe this past summer in the northern hemisphere. Taylor said it would take several years of analysis and discussion before scientists start publishing their interpretations of the data.

“It takes a ridiculously long time to do these projects,” he mused. “The questions we hope to answer four years from now were ones that we were asking five or 10 years ago.”

NSF funded research in this story: Ken Taylor, Desert Research Institute, Award Nos. 0440817, 0440819, 0230396 External U.S. government site; Ed Brook, Oregon State University, Award Nos. 0739766, 0538578, 0440615 External U.S. government site; John Priscu, Montana StateUniversity, Award No. 0440943 External U.S. government site; and Charles Bentley, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Award No. 0003289 External U.S. government site.

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Curator: Peter Rejcek, Antarctic Support Contract | NSF Official: Winifred Reuning, Division of Polar Programs