UW Today

February 2, 2011

Two-mile Antarctic ice core could shed light on climate change

News and Information

A research project being conducted by nearly 90 people from public and private U.S. universities and research institutions, including several University of Washington scientists, has succeeded in extracting a core more than 2 miles in depth from Antarctic ice.

This one-meter long section of ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet project shows a dark ash layer. (Photo credit: Heidi Roop)

This one-meter long section of ice core from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet project shows a dark ash layer. (Photo credit: Heidi Roop)

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide Core project reached a depth of 3,331 meters (about 10,820 feet) on Jan. 28. It is the second-deepest ice core ever collected.

The UW contingent was led by Eric Steig, professor of Earth and space sciences. It also included Becky Alexander, assistant professor of atmospheric sciences, Howard Conway, research professor of Earth and space sciences, and Edwin Waddington, professor of Earth and space sciences. Several UW graduate students also were involved in the drilling and other field work in Antarctica.

The project was designed to examine the last 100,000 years of Earth’s climate history by drilling and recovering a deep ice core from central West Antarctica.

This summer the core is to be cut into pieces at the National Ice Core Laboratory near Denver, Steig said. Pieces will be sent to laboratories around the country, including UW.

Already, ice cores from Greenland have advanced scientists understanding of how climate has changed in the past 100,000 years. The Antarctic core will provide data for a similar time frame from the southern hemisphere.

Data from the new core will be used to obtain information in unprecedented detail on changes over time to the makeup of Earths atmosphere, as well as refine computer models devised to reflect the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and examine the ice sheets stability in the face of climate change. It also will be used to examine life in the extreme environment of polar ice.

Drilling of the core began in the 2006-07 field research season. The work was funded by the National Science Foundation.