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Ice core camp on the summit of Quelccaya in Peru in 2003.
Photo Credit: Ryan Vachon
An ice core camp led by Lonnie Thompson on the summit of Quelccaya in Peru in 2003. The Thompsons will use a similar operation to drill for an ice core in the Antarctic Peninsula in 2010.

The core truth

LARISSA component to drill into ice sheet may reveal past abrupt climate changes

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It turns out you can’t just drill an ice core in any old place in Antarctica.

You have to plan the logistics — how do you get there and how do you support an operation for weeks at a time? You have to flesh out the science goals — do you want detailed annual layers of climate history or a record hundreds of thousands of years old? And then you rely on decades of ice-coring experience around the globe — and a little bit of luck.

The Thompsons from Byrd Polar Research Center (BPRC) External Non-U.S. government site at The Ohio State University External Non-U.S. government site certainly possess plenty of the former, having led expeditions to both poles and to the high-altitude ice fields of South America, Asia and Africa’s Kilimanjaro. Their latest work to drill a 400- to 500-meter-long ice core as part of the multi-disciplinary LARISSA program External Non-U.S. government site is routine in most respects.

Yet Ellen Mosley-Thompson External Non-U.S. government site is still cautiously optimistic about their possible success, because in reality there’s nothing standard about working in remote, cold places and drilling into ice sheets with equipment that can wear and break down far from the closest repair shop.


“If we get the core to bedrock, I’ll be thrilled,” said Mosley-Thompson during a phone interview from her office at BPRC, while colleague and husband Lonnie Thompson External Non-U.S. government site was away drilling an ice core on Nevado Hualcán in northern Peru at 5,800 meters, not far below the 6,122-meter summit.

“Weather dominates,” Mosley-Thompson said of ice-coring expeditions. “It doesn’t matter how well you plan, probably the plan will change. It always does, but you have to have a starting point.”

The starting point for the LARISSA ice core — which will provide insight to the climate history of the Antarctic Peninsula region and provide context for the Larsen B Ice Shelf breakup in 2002 — is 66.04 degrees south and 64.003 degrees west. Dubbed Site Beta, that’s the point on the 2,000-meter-high Bruce Plateau where the scientists believe they’ll have the best success of finding an ice core with distinct and thick annual layers.

It will actually be up to glaciologist Ted Scambos External Non-U.S. government site and his ground-penetrating radar team to mark the “X” on the ice cap for the coring site before the Thompsons arrive. Scambos’ team will pull the radar on a sled behind a snowmobile, imaging the layers of ice and bedrock below, and measuring the exact altitude with GPS.

“They’re going to pick the exact spot,” Mosley-Thompson said.

The ideal site should have thick, annual layers of ice, which provide a detailed year-to-year record of climate, recorded by dust particles, chemical compounds such as sulfate and nitrate, and the isotopic ratios of oxygen and hydrogen. The properties of the ice can discern dry, cold conditions or warm, wet conditions in the past.

The abundance of dust, sulfate and isotopes change over the course of the year, and can be used to help date the core. Gases trapped in bubbles in the ice can also be measured and provide a history of the atmosphere’s past gaseous composition.

Smooth bedrock is also important, Mosley-Thompson explained, otherwise the ice core record becomes convoluted. “That’s going to keep the layers pretty horizontal. Flat bedrock is critical.

“It was a challenge,” she added. “We spent a lot of time looking at different locations, looking at all of the different radar profiles, looking back at shallow cores that had been drilled in the region.”

While the high snow accumulation rate on the ice ridge — possibly more than a meter per year — is good for that “high-resolution” detail, it could mean the record left in the ice is somewhat brief, according to Scambos.

“That’s part of the problem. It’s warm; it’s very high snow accumulation, so the ice near the bottom flows away more rapidly,” said Scambos, lead scientist at the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) External Non-U.S. government site in Boulder, Colo. “It’s unclear of how much of that older record will still be left at the base of the ice.”1 2   Next