Melting Glaciers, Changing Careers

Posted by on May 13, 2015

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Ice core drilling. Credit: Doug Clark, Western Washington University

Ice core drilling. Credit: Doug Clark, Western Washington University

Climate change is making the work of glaciologists complicated. Scientists that study paleoclimatology of the Earth have come to the realization that melting ice and receding glaciers are getting in the way of their fieldwork.

“Time no longer starts at the surface,” said Lonnie Thompson, a paleoclimatologist at the Byrd Polar Research Center at the Ohio State University in Columbus, in an interview with Nature.

His ice-core research career started since the mid-1970s. When he drilled an ice core from the Quelccaya ice cap in the Peruvian Andes in 1983, melting had not occurred at altitudes above 5,000 meters. However, 20 years later when he returned for another ice core, things changed completely—melting disrupted the pattern of atmospheric isotopes in the top 40 meters of ice.

Peruvian Andes. Source: Flickr.

Peruvian Andes. Source: Flickr.

To address challenges like those faced by Thompson, the community of ice-core researchers is developing a better approach to saving ice for the next generation of scientists. Patrick Ginot, a paleoclimatologist at the Institute of Research for Development (IRD) in Marseilles, France, advocated that the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) support a program that would sustainably collect ice cores and store extra samples at the Concordia Research Station in central Antarctica, in order to meet the research demands for both current and future scientists.

concordian station

Concordian Research Station in central Antarctica. Source: European Space Agency.

The layers in an ice core are a reliable indicator of its age. Scientists and researchers count the layers that record seasonal changes and date ice cores. Ideally, an intact ice core shows the most recent year on the top layer, which scientists use to link to their knowledge about recent climate conditions—temperature, precipitation, etc.

For example, the nuclear tests in 1950s and 1960s, as well as the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, left datable signatures in glaciers all over the world, which mark specific years for scientists. Stable isotopes of oxygen that remain in partially melted ice could enable scientists to obtain average measurements from 5- to 10-year periods, though not year-to year data. Unfortunately, ice core samples with insufficient radioactive signature make it difficult for researchers to identify specific years.

To acquire a pure sample of ice core, glaciologists have no choice but climb higher where melting has not yet begun, though it can be dangerous.

“In most cases, we can’t go higher. We can’t get to a colder environment,” said Douglas Hardy, a geoscientist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, in an article in Nature. He once placed weather instruments on glaciers to measure temperature, humidity, precipitation rates and the amount of sunlight that shed on the surface of glaciers. These meteorological conditions can help scientists examine the impacts of these factors on layers of ice.

Now, Hardy explained, scientists have to do the work before the ice is gone permanently, otherwise glacier history will remain unknown forever. The pathway to higher altitudes is worthwhile, but risky at the same time. Therefore, collecting and storing ice core samples before they all melt away seems a good solution to the problem.

The major challenge of storing ice cores lies in funding, as most science funding agencies tend to pay for research that is expected to generate quickly published results.

To persuade donors, the International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences prepared a report on the importance of preserving records of climate history. The co-chair of the organization, Ed Brook, expects to present the report on a major geosciences meeting in 2016.


The Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS) organizes events to support young polar scientists researchers. Source: APECS.

Younger scientists also expressed their uncertainty of future ice-core research. Aron Buffen, a paleoclimatology doctoral student at Brown University says that scientists will easily lose comparisons for future measurement techniques if all the ice melts quickly.

On the other hand, Buffen also points out that the melting may bring about more research questions, such as distinguishing between melting caused by warming and sublimation caused by lower humidity. If scientists can shed light on how glacier retreat impacts local ecosystems, the research can be used to help communities better adapt to climate change. Additionally, organizations like the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists (APECS), are helping young glacier researchers develop their career paths and networks in an innovative, international and interdisciplinary approach.

While grieving over the disappearing glaciers, scientists can also see the silver lining as intriguing opportunities arise from the perspective of careers and science.

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