Cutting-edge ice core facility extracts Antarctic climate secrets

Dr Tessa Vance with an ice core from Aurora Basin in the new ice core facility at IMAS.
Dr Tessa Vance with an ice core from Aurora Basin in the new ice core facility at IMAS. (Photo: Jill Brown)
An ice core being cut with a horizontal bandsaw.A scientist cuts a rectangular stick from the centre of the ice core with a bandsaw.A collection of long rectangular sections or sticks of ice cores in individual plastic sleeves.

10th December 2014

A new world-class ice core laboratory in Tasmania will allow scientists to process ice cores drilled deep in Antarctica and extract critical climate information.

The new laboratory contains specially designed equipment being used in Australia for the first time to analyse ice cores drilled at Aurora Basin, about 500 kilometres inland of Australia’s Casey station, last summer.

The federal government funded facility will be used by scientists and students from Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre (ACE CRC) and the Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), and is located at the University of Tasmania’s Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies (IMAS) headquarters in Hobart.

The cores are being sectioned and analysed for atmospheric gases, particles and other chemical elements that were trapped in snow as it fell and compacted to form layers, like tree rings, in ice over thousands of years.

AAD glaciologist and Aurora Basin project leader, Dr Mark Curran, said it will take the team of seven scientists 12 weeks to process the two tonnes of ice.

“The ice contains 2000 years of climate history that will help fill a gap in the science community’s knowledge of climate records,” Dr Curran said.

“We’ll be able to obtain information about the temperature under which the ice formed, storm events, solar and volcanic activity, sea ice extent, and the concentration of different atmospheric gases, including carbon dioxide.

“This is the first time we have had the necessary equipment to process ice cores to such a degree in Hobart.”

Chief Executive Officer of the ACE CRC, Professor Tony Worby, said the research was also expected to improve our understanding of Australia’s long-term climate patterns.

“The outcomes of this research are extremely important for all Australians, because our climate is closely linked with climate patterns in Antarctica,” Professor Worby said.

“These Antarctic ice cores will allow us to construct a high resolution record of the climate in southern Australia dating back 2000 years, which will be critical for predicting likely climate change scenarios in the future.”

The facility has four specially designed pieces of equipment, two of which are on loan from the University of Copenhagen, and combines the best elements from a number of world leading laboratories.

It has specifically designed saw technology to slice the cores into nine different segments for further analysis.

There’s also a device to measure electrical conductivity which can give the first insight into any evidence of volcanic activity.

Executive Director of IMAS, Professor Mike Coffin, said the ice core work is putting Tasmania at the forefront of Antarctic glaciology and attracting international interest.

“This ground-breaking research is yet another example of how Hobart has become a vital hub for collaborative Antarctic science,” Professor Coffin said.

The Aurora Basin project involves 15 different partner organisations contributing from six nations: Australia, China, Denmark, France, Germany and the United States.