The epic search for oldest ice in Antarctica is starting

Università Ca’ Foscari Venezia

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On 1st June 2019 the European Beyond EPICA Oldest Ice Core project started with the aim of drilling for and recovering ice from up to 1.5 Million years ago in Antarctica. The previous EPICA project recovered ice from 800,000 years ago. The new project aims to go beyond that. The new core will give us information on the greenhouse gases present during the Middle Pleistocene Transition (MPT), which occurred between 900,000 and 1.2 Million years ago. During this period the climatic periodicity transitioned from 41,000 to 100,000 years between ice ages. Why this change happened is the mystery scientists want to resolve.

To do this, experts from 10 European Countries and 16 different Research Institutions have joined forces under the guidance of Carlo Barbante and his management team at the CNR and Ca’ Foscari University of Venice in Italy, funded by the European Horizon 2020-research programme.

The drilling site, at Little Dome C, was previously identified by an EU funded geophysical survey project, led by Olaf Eisen from the Alfred Wegner Institute in Germany. The drill site was presented during an EGU press conference in Vienna on 9th April 2019. Luckily it is only 40km from Concordia Station, the Italian-French base on the high Antarctic Plateau at Dome C, over 1000 km from the coast and at an altitude of 3233 m above sea level, run by IPEV and the PNRA, the French and Italian polar agencies. Here on a balmy summers day the temperatures reach a maximum of -25°C, whilst in the deep mid-winter they drop to under -80°C. It may seem absurd whilst sitting on 3 km of water, but Dome C is as dry as the Sahara Desert, so snow accumulates slowly, gradually trapping in the ice the precious air bubbles we hope to analyse to find the atmospheric composition of the deep past of our planet. Careful analysis of the isotopic ratios of this ancient ice will be our deep time thermometer.

In the words of Barbara Stenni of Ca’ Foscari University of Venice “we hope to study the climate of the past to improve our models of future climate change.”

The whole project will cost around 11 million € and will take 6 years in total to drill, collect and analyse the ice from this very deep hole if everything goes to plan.


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From EurekAlert!

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June 5, 2019 3:48 am

This is a chancy project. While it would be very interesting to get an ice core that goes beyond the Mid-pleistocene climate-shift and back into era of 41,000 year glaciations it is far from certain that they will succeed. Essentially there are two problems. Very old ice can only be found under ice-divides where the ice does not move sideways. Over long time-periods ice divides will probably shift, even in inland East Antarctica. The other complication is bottom melting. If the ice is thick enough this insulates the surface under the ice enough that the geothermic heat flow raises the temperature over the pressure melting point. This melting is the source ofsubglacial lakes like Lake Vostok. It is very slow, but over thousands of year can melt an appreciable thickness of ice.
One tries to avoid this by seismic studies of the ice, looking for areas with horizontal layering right down to bedrock, and no traces of subglacial water, but these are uncertain techniques that have failed repeatedly in Greenland where there still is not a single site where intact, undisturbed ice older than the previous interglacial has been found.
Unfortunately the very old ice they are searching for will be extremely compressed, probably only several meters thick, and right on top of bedrock, so they won’t know until the end of the drilling if it was successful or not.
It would also be very interesting if they could get some of the rocks and sediments up. The exposure age would be extremely interesting (exposure age = how long since the rocks were exposed to cosmic radiation).
The exposure age in central East Antarctica could be >50 million years.

R Shearer
Reply to  tty
June 5, 2019 5:30 am

That won’t stop them as their conclusions are probably well formulated.

Rhoda R
Reply to  R Shearer
June 5, 2019 2:59 pm

My first thought as I read the reason for the research.

Reply to  Rhoda R
June 6, 2019 12:28 am

I, for once, am willing to suspend the judgement. Remember, this research, as any other, needs funding. So the proposers not only need to plan it thoroughly, but also to “sell” it: sometimes you need to ride the wave, or at least pretend to do so.

Ramiro Gonzalez
Reply to  tty
June 6, 2019 5:21 pm

My best wishes for all the researchers Team!

Greg Woods
June 5, 2019 5:36 am

Why bother? Our climate expert AOC says we only have a few years left, anyway…

matthew dalby
Reply to  Greg Woods
June 5, 2019 9:23 pm

Or maybe it needs to be in double quick time before the whole of Antarctica (including their precious record of past climates) melts and drowns us all.

Bob Hoye
June 5, 2019 5:41 am

My first thought was “How do they find the oldest site?”

Reply to  Bob Hoye
June 5, 2019 6:35 am

The geo who finds the oldest chunk of ice will be celebrated.
His compatriots will sing “Freeze a jolly good fellow”.

[Ouch. .mod]

Reply to  toorightmate
June 5, 2019 7:41 am

For nobody can denier.

Reply to  beng135
June 5, 2019 10:04 pm

I’m not sure which bit made me laugh most “Freeze a jolly good fellow” or “For nobody can denier”.

Well done both

Jerry Palmer
June 5, 2019 5:46 am

I am confident that no matter what they find, the data will be “adjusted”, “corrected” and “normalized” to fit the agenda.
Hey, it’s what we pay them for.

Reply to  Jerry Palmer
June 6, 2019 1:41 pm

Don’t forget, ‘extrapolated’! If the figures don’t fit their pre-planned conclusions, they just ‘guesstimate’ it and MAKE it fit! Then, they can sell it as fact and ‘established science’! Don’t worry, there are enough gullible fools around to make it work!

Alan Robertson
June 5, 2019 6:04 am

My first thought was, “I hope the field crew gets paid well.”
When I was young, my first thought would have been, “Oh Boy, what an adventure, sign me up!”

Reply to  Alan Robertson
June 5, 2019 6:35 am

Dome C is not a nice place, even in summer.

Dave Fair
Reply to  Alan Robertson
June 5, 2019 9:14 am

Alan, I chose to hold onto my youthful toxic masculinity. The rest of you old farts can go join the henna-haired women in the old folks homes.

Alan Robertson
Reply to  Dave Fair
June 5, 2019 11:02 am

It’s because of guys like me that the ladies are in such a state.

Ps Good luck with your plan.

June 5, 2019 6:29 am

I guess it’s okay. The Blob is in the Arctic.

But, still, what ancient organisms might they bring up – to Man’s peril.

June 5, 2019 7:14 am

… and then, right after its discovery, it will be used as the hook for a new vodka advertising campaign.

thank you, thank you very much!

June 5, 2019 8:45 am

During this period the climatic periodicity transitioned from 41,000 to 100,000 years between ice ages. Why this change happened is the mystery scientists want to resolve.

There is no mystery. There is no transition. They are just not looking properly at the data. The world has been cooling relentlessly since the Oligocene. Orbital changes have been responsible for the alternation of warm (interstadials or interglacials) and cold (stadials or glacials) periods by increasing or decreasing high latitude insolation. Interstadials took place every obliquity oscillation (41 ky), but as the planet cooled the amount of extrapolar ice during glacials grew to a point when obliquity alone was not enough to melt the ice. Then an obliquity oscillation was skipped and the time between two interglacials became 82 ky. At times of high eccentricity the planet returns briefly to a 41 ky period (MIS7 and MIS15 at 200 and 600 ka). The result is that interglacials take place with an average periodicity of 73 ky. That’s why there are 11 interglacials in the past 800 ky. If it was a 100 ky periodicity there should be only 8, but there are 11. During the past glacial two obliquity oscillations were skipped. That glacial lasted then 123 ky. The reason was that the second obliquity oscillation did not have the correct orbital configuration to produce an interglacial. Eccentricity was low and the peaks in obliquity and precession were not properly aligned.

The planet is so cold that it has become tricky to escape glaciation, but that is not a mystery. It is all in the data. We can predict that the next interglacial will take place in about 70 kyr. Once the Holocene is over we should have over 60,000 years of ice age.

Reply to  Javier
June 5, 2019 10:34 am

Well now that you put it like that, it looks like that is a perfectly valid explanation and explains a lot. Simple arithmetic…usually the simplest most obvious explanation is the correct one. The first million years of the Pleistocene ice sheets responded to each obliquity oscillation and melted out to an interglacial regardless of the eccentricity position (or precession cycle) and with further cooling after a million years, and probably more ice volumes, just exacerbated the melting each 41,000 year obliquity cycle so that it took higher eccentricity to melt on the 2nd obliquity cycle and wind up where we are now. What role did precession play? And was it further cooling after a million years of advance/retreats and further planetary cooling (oceans) that led to this, or much more extensive ice volumes that just didn’t have sufficient time to melt? Or do general declining CO2 levels the last 2.58 million years explain everything?

The $64,000 question is then what effect would a doubling of CO2 look like in the future, from the low of a full blown ice age advance at 180 ppmv, and more recently from the average CO2 high during an interglacial cycle at 280 ppmv? If we double CO2 from our recent pre-industrial era, (280 ppmv to 560 ppmv) is the IPCC correct that our much higher CO2 concentrations will either slowly moderate or stop the next advance or even the Pleistocene ice age? That would be it seems, the true measure of the sensitivity of CO2 to the long term climate.

Reply to  Earthling2
June 5, 2019 3:08 pm

what effect would a doubling of CO2 look like in the future, from the low of a full blown ice age advance at 180 ppmv, and more recently from the average CO2 high during an interglacial cycle at 280 ppmv?

This issue has been discussed in science since the times of Arrhenius. Current predominant thinking is that CO2 levels above 300 ppm can stop the arrival of a new glaciation. I have looked into it dispassionately by studying the correlation between CO2 and temperature for the past half billion years with as much detail as proxies allow. I have to say I have found no evidence supporting that believe. While it is true that no glaciation has taken place with >300 ppm CO2 that is because Ice Ages are characterized by low CO2 levels. Glacial inceptions, however, take place when CO2 levels are high, at interglacial levels, indicating CO2 plays no role in glacial inception.

It is perfectly possible that high CO2 levels might not prevent the next glacial inception, and even if they could we have the problem of keeping CO2 levels high when fossil fuels peak and decline over the next decades/centuries. Glacial inception might be a couple of millennia away and fossil fuels are not going to last that long.

Reply to  Javier
June 5, 2019 1:56 pm

Good comment. Makes sense to me.
But with our technology we will prevent next glacial…?

Rainer Bensch
Reply to  henryp
June 6, 2019 5:38 am

Prevent? I thought they want to make it colder.

Reply to  Rainer Bensch
June 6, 2019 9:54 am

You are funny.

June 5, 2019 9:24 am

A worthy project with humor in article in comments. The hope to improve models from the past in predicting climate change is suspicious as to how they will use the study.

son of mulder
June 5, 2019 11:52 am

They mean the most recent old ice. The oldest old ice melted a long time ago well before the Anthropocene..

June 5, 2019 12:37 pm

Have the 800 -600 ky segments of the previous EPICA project now been analyzed and published?

Reply to  JaneHM
June 6, 2019 2:22 am

Yes, it hinted at problems with diffusion in ice close to pressure melting:

June 5, 2019 1:57 pm

Good comment. Makes sense to me.
But with our technology we will prevent next glacial…?

Greg Cavanagh
June 5, 2019 2:27 pm

“To do this, experts from 10 European Countries and 16 different Research Institutions have joined forces…”

Is this supposed to impress us? Does the number of countries involved make a difference? The more people from more countries involved the more accurate it is?

It might be an interesting point, but that’s not how it was written.

Reply to  Greg Cavanagh
June 5, 2019 3:02 pm

Greg, if I can see things sharply at 100 meters and you can see things sharply at 100 meters, then it stands to reason that if we both look at the same thing, we can see sharply out to 200 meters, right?

So that’s why there’s 16 Research Institutions.

Reply to  Greg Cavanagh
June 6, 2019 12:31 am

10 countries and 16 research institutions are more likely to raise the needed funds than 2 of them, and to find a bunch of crazy people willing to go in a helly place like that.

Smart Rock
Reply to  Greg Cavanagh
June 6, 2019 6:38 am

Of course it’s supposed to sound impressive; it’s written by a publicist.

The reality is probably a lot more mundane – they had to pool all their separate grants to fund what will undoubtedly be an expensive project.

Flight Level
June 6, 2019 12:37 am

The quest for the perfect Martini On The Rocks reaches a new milestone ! Let’s see how the star-bartender will handle the PR junket.

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