Climate change is a reality today, but how can we find out about the future dangers it poses" What we really need is a full record of the Earths climate for several hundred thousand years, complete with samples of air from different epochs that can be taken to the lab for analysis. Incredibly, this record exists, in the icecaps of the Arctic and Antarctic regions, and a European Science Foundation programme has a key role in deciphering it.
Professor Thomas Stocker of the University of Bern in Switzerland is one of the principal investigators of EPICA (European Programme for Ice Coring in Antarctica.) Stocker explains that EPICA, a joint ESF- European Commission (EC) effort funded by the Commission and 10 national agencies, has put Europe in a leading position in ice core research, in which specially designed drilling technology is used to obtain continuous ice sequences 3.8 thousands of metres in length.
A series of EPICA papers in prestigious journals such as Nature and Science are evidence of its world importance. The principle behind ice coring is straightforward. Snow falls in Greenland and the Antarctic, but conditions there are too cold for it to melt. In most places it will eventually be carried away by glacial movement, but it is possible to find areas where the snow has piled up for hundreds of thousands of years, turning to ice as the weight of later snowfall builds up on top.
Drilling out a core of such ice reveals the past in a neat sequence of millennia. Better still, the ice contains information about the past. It includes trapped air bubbles that can be analysed to reveal the composition of the ancient atmosphere. Layers of ash reveal ancient volcanic eruptions. And the ratio of different isotopes of oxygen in the ice is a virtual thermometer that tells us past temperatures. The more of the lighter isotope, oxygen 16, there is, the colder it was.
Stocker says: Ice-drilling is an area in which Europe has taken
|Contact: Thomas Lau|
European Science Foundation