Desert research exposes icy story

Ice core within metal tubing
Ice core (Photo: Joel Pedro)
It may seem an unlikely collaboration, but Nevada's Desert Research Institute (DRI) in the United States, is helping Australian Antarctic Division glaciologists analyse the chemical constituents of two Antarctic ice cores.

Glaciologists, Dr Mark Curran and Dr Barbara Frankel, said the two cores – one drilled from the summit of Law Dome in 2005–06 and the other taken about 10 km west of the summit in 2008–09 – contain about 150 and 250 years of climate history respectively, bound up in the frozen water molecules inside the core.

'Over the past 200 years, humans are believed to have altered the atmosphere more than would have occurred naturally and we will be able to track those changes through the unique chemical tracers in the ice that can be measured by the DRI facility,' Dr Frankel says.

The ice cores will be analysed by a team led by Dr Joe McConnell in the DRI's Trace Chemistry Laboratory. The team is a world leader in the analysis of metals and other chemical species present in snow and ice in ultra-low concentrations – parts per quadrillion or 1 x 10-15 grams of ion per gram of melted ice sample– using 'inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometers'.

'The technique provides the maximum amount of information from the minimum amount of ice and complements our existing ice core work at the Antarctic Division,' Dr Curran says.

Using current technology available in Australia it would take two years to do the same work the $6 million DRI facility can do in two months. The glaciology team plan to send more ice cores to the desert team as they are drilled.

'Combined with our analysis at the Antarctic Division, we will use the results from the DRI to get a better understanding of how the earth's atmosphere changes over time, how it responds to human contributions and hopefully, to use as a predictive tool, along with other ice core records, to model past and future atmospheric change,' Dr Frankel says.

WENDY PYPER

Corporate Communications, Australian Antarctic Division

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