Inside the race to rescue clues to Earth’s past from melting glaciers

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Glacial ice records all manner of precious information about the planet’s environmental history, but it is melting fast. The Ice Memory project is scrambling to extract samples for posterity before it’s too late



Earth



16 June 2021

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A drilling site on the Corbassière glacier

Riccardo Selvatico

MARGIT SCHWIKOWSKI and her team were attempting to drill into the Corbassiére glacier in the Swiss Alps when the weather started to turn. They were camped among the soaring peaks of the Grand Combin massif. The only way off this vast sheet of ice in a storm is to descend a steep mountain wall or traverse the jagged glacier surface itself, which claims several lives a year. Instead, they retreated by helicopter before it was too late.

For Schwikowski, an environmental chemist at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Villigen, Switzerland, the risks of missions like this October 2020 expedition to Corbassiére are worth it. The team she was leading is part of an international enterprise that aims to preserve the “memories” frozen into mountain glaciers across the world, by drilling out long samples all the way from the young surface snow down to the old, compacted ice at the base of a glacier.

These ice cores are loaded with information about Earth’s past that could be crucial in our fight against global warming. Locked within them is a picture of how the planet’s climate has changed over time, as well as evidence of human activity as far back as the Romans, clues about the evolution of microorganisms and much more. Now, scientists are racing rising temperatures to rescue ice cores from the world’s glaciers before they melt.

Mountain glaciers, also known as alpine glaciers, are slow-flowing rivers of ice. They begin life at high altitudes where the amount of snow settling …

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