Deep Cores

Most of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets are below freezing throughout. Continuous cores, taken in some cases to the bedrock below, allow the sampling of an ice sheet through its entire history of accumulation. Records obtained from these cores represent exciting new developments in paleoclimatology and paleoenvironmental studies. Because there is no melting, the layered structure of the ice preserves a continuous record of snow accumulation and chemistry, air temperature and chemistry, and fallout from volcanic, terrestrial, marine, cosmic, and

A glaciologist in Antarctica examines an ice core dating to 1840. Testing performed on the layers of an ice core reveal much about the climate and atmosphere of the past. Vin Morgan/AFP/Getty Images .

man-made sources. Actual samples of ancient atmospheres are trapped in air bubbles within the ice. This record extends back more than 400,000 years.

Near the surface it is possible to pick out annual layers by visual inspection. In some locations, such as the Greenland Ice-core Project/Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 (GRIP/GISP2) sites at the summit of Greenland, these annual layers can be traced back more than 40,000 years, much like counting tree rings. The result is a remarkably high-resolution record of climatic change. When individual layers are not readily visible, seasonal changes in dust, marine salts, and isotopes can be used to infer annual chronologies. Precise dating of recent layers can be accomplished by locating radioactive fallout from known nuclear detonations or traces of volcanic eruptions of known date. Other techniques must be used to reconstruct a chronology from some very deep cores. One method involves a theoretical analysis of the flow. If the vertical profile of ice flow is known, and if it can be assumed that the rate of accumulation has been approximately constant through time, then an expression for the age of the ice as a function of depth can be developed.

A very useful technique for tracing past temperatures involves the measurement of oxygen isotopes—namely, the ratio of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16. Oxygen-16 is the dominant isotope, making up more than 99 percent of all natural oxygen; oxygen-18 makes up 0.2 percent. However, the exact concentration of oxygen-18 in precipitation, particularly at high latitudes, depends on the temperature. Winter snow has a smaller oxygen-i8-oxygen-i6 ratio than does summer snow. A similar isotopic method for inferring precipitation temperature is based on measuring the ratio of deuterium (hydrogen-2) to normal hydrogen (hydro-gen-i). The relation between these oxygen and hydrogen isotopic ratios, termed the deuterium excess, is useful for inferring conditions at the time of evaporation and precipitation. The temperature scale derived from isotopic measurements can be calibrated by the observable temperature-depth record near the surface of ice sheets.

Results of ice core measurements are greatly extending the knowledge of past climates. For instance, air samples taken from ice cores show an increase in methane, carbon dioxide, and other "greenhouse gas" concentrations with the rise of industrialization and human population. On a longer time scale, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere can be shown to be related to atmospheric temperature (as indicated by oxygen and hydrogen iso-topes)—thus confirming the global-warming greenhouse effect, by which heat in the form of long-wave infrared radiation is trapped by atmospheric carbon dioxide and reflected back to the Earth's surface.

Perhaps most exciting are recent ice core results that show surprisingly rapid fluctuations in climate, especially during the last glacial period (160,000 to 10,000 years ago) and probably in the interglacial period that preceded it. Detectable variations in the dustiness of the atmosphere (a function of wind and atmospheric circulation), temperature, precipitation amounts, and other variables show that, during this time period, the climate frequently alternated between full-glacial and nonglacial conditions in less than a decade. Some of these changes seem to have occurred as sudden climate fluctuations, called Dansgaard-Oeschger events, in which the temperature jumped 5 to 7°C (9 to i3°F), remained in that state for a few years to centuries, jumped back, and repeated the process several times before settling into the new state for a long time— perhaps 1,000 years. These findings have profound and unsettling implications for the understanding of the coupled ocean-atmosphere climate system.

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