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What the Past Can Teach Us About the Future of Climate Change

Posted: 12/30/2013 4:55 pm

High on the icy, windswept plateau of East Antarctica an international team of scientists is about to assemble a time machine. First stop: back to the era when Christ was born.

If all goes well, the Australian-led team hopes to eventually retrace one-million years of atmospheric history by drilling deep into the ice in a costly and difficult project. No one has gone back quite so far but the achievement would be a scientific scoop that could help solve the mystery of why the cycle of ice ages has slowed.

And most importantly, scientists hope that by revealing the past we will get a better grasp on how global warming will affect the climate of the future.

The mission is to drill deep into the ancient ice to extract air bubbles that have literally been frozen in time. That rare air can tell scientists important details, such as the levels carbon dioxide (CO2) and volcanic ash in the atmosphere over the years.

In a competing project, China hopes to be first in this great race to the past with a drilling program for million-year-old ice at another part of East Antarctica. The Europeans tried first and retraced back about 890,000 years.

Although the ice is more than four kilometres deep in places in East Antarctica, finding ice at least one million years old has become a global challenge because of the immense cost and logistics.

In a matter of days, the Australian-led team will start assembling their drill site at Aurora Basin, about 3,000 metres above sea level and about 550 kilometres inland from Australia's Casey research station on the Antarctic coast. The small Danish drill will bore into ice that is among the deepest in the world at about 4.2 km.

The cores are sliced in sections about one-metre long, within initial focus on climate from the relatively recent past of some 2,000 years ago, around the dawn of Christianity. The team, jointly funded by the United States, Denmark and France, plans to initially drill down to 400 metres to extract a detailed climate record of this period -- something that is rare in the Southern Hemisphere but crucial for accurate climate analysis.

FILLING IN THE BLANKS

"When you go back into ancient ice, you are getting a true measure of global CO2 levels," said Mark Curran from the Australian Antarctic Division in Hobart, Tasmania.

Curran, science leader for the project, said the ice cores can fill in the blanks about the climate and bolster the analysis from tree rings and deep sediments that scientists have used to estimate how the atmosphere has changed over time.

The six-week drilling window from mid-December to January is dependent on nearly 30 tonnes of equipment that has to be hauled across the ice by tractors. (See the blog by the scientist Tas Van Ommen). Once in place, the drill will extract small cores to be analyzed in Australia and elsewhere, which will take several years.

Curran said there were plenty of ice cores that go back tens or hundreds of thousands of years but the analyses were not detailed enough to get a proper picture of the climate in recent years.

"The resolution we really need is annual resolution over the last 2,000 years because it gives a significant baseline of natural variability of climate over that period of time," he said in an interview.

This period includes climate epochs that are well known in the Northern Hemisphere, such as the Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. "Were these truly global events or were they just localized European phenomena or North America phenomena?" he asked.

"If we understand that, we understand the difference between how the two hemispheres record climate and therefore how climate change might affect those hemispheres."

He said the $10 million project could last about five years. After that, phase 2, costing upwards of $50 million, will go for the prize of million-year-old ice.

The quest for ancient ice has become a major international focus for polar scientists who want answers to a planetary riddle, one that could help us better understand what drives major changes in the world's climate.

Between 1.2-million and about 800,000 years ago, there was a switch from 41,000-year ice age cycles to the 100,000-year cycles we're in now, said Curran. The exact reasons for the switch are not known but some scientists suspect greenhouse gases played a role. The only way to find out is to drill an ice core that captures the picture of the atmosphere before the Earth switched to a slower beat.

"The key question is, what did the CO2 do during that period? Did it beat to the same rhythm as temperature or was it different?" Curran said.

AN ICY SCOOP

So far, only the Europeans have come close to extracting million-year-old ice. Drilling at a site in East Antarctica called Dome C at 75 degrees South, they reached back nearly 900,000 years at a depth of about 3.3 kilometres.

China has recently started drilling at Dome A at 80 degrees South and a recent analysis reveals the site could potentially yield ice 1.3-million years old.

An American ice-core project in West Antarctica reached a final depth of 3.4 km at end of 2011 and extracted ice estimated at 68,000 years old from a region of much younger ice.

Curran believes the area around Aurora Basin holds the oldest ice. The trick is finding exactly where it is because the deepest ice is not necessarily the oldest.

A study published in early November in the journal Climate of the Past highlighted spots in East Antarctica where ice as old as 1.5-million years might be extracted from the depths.

"It doesn't always hold that deeper or thicker ice is older because of the way ice flows and because of the accumulation rate at the surface and the topography at the bottom," Curran said, adding there was melting at the bottom of the ice cap because of warmth from the earth's crust.

"So it might be on the margins on the deep ice that we find where we think the oldest ice is and maybe we only have to drill to 3 km or 2.5 km instead of 4 km," he said, which could speed up the quest. Ice-penetrating radar has also become a major tool in finding the best spots to drill given the mountains and valleys that lie buried under the thick, and shifting, blanket of ice.

Curran said drilling for million-year-old ice wouldn't begin for at least another six years at Aurora Basin and that the project needed a lot of investment to support the creation of a new base at the site as well as logistics support and perfecting a new drill.

Drilling would also likely take a further five years during each summer, making the quest more than a decade in the making.

Curran was diplomatic when asked if he was in a race with the Chinese and others, saying it was better to have several cores to analyze and cross-check the climate data.

"But, having said, if you happen to be the one who holds the first piece of ice that is one million years old, that is pretty cool."

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    Along with the Maldives and other island nations, Kiribati is also threatened by climate change. Earlier this year, the president's cabinet endorsed a plan to spend about $9.6 million for 6,000 acres on Fiji's main island, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/09/kiribati-global-warming-fiji_n_1334228.html" target="_hplink">reported AP</a>. President Anote Tong told AP, "We would hope not to put everyone on one piece of land, but if it became absolutely necessary, yes, we could do it." He added, "It wouldn't be for me, personally, but would apply more to a younger generation. For them, moving won't be a matter of choice. It's basically going to be a matter of survival."

  • Super Duper Fast Wi-Fi Connection

    A 2011 report from the U.K.'s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs found that climate change could affect certain infrastructure, like wireless internet. <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/may/09/climate-change-wi-fi-connections" target="_hplink">The <em>Guardian</em> reports</a>, "higher temperatures can reduce the range of wireless communications, rainstorms can impact the reliability of the signal, and drier summers and wetter winters may cause greater subsidence, damaging masts and underground cables," according to secretary of state for the environment. The <em>Guardian</em> notes, "The government acknowledges that the impact of climate change on telecommunications is not well understood, but the report raises a series of potential risks."

  • The Great Smoky Mountains' Smoke

    The Great Smoky Mountains have the most annual rainfall in the southeastern U.S., which mostly falls as a light, misty rain, <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/28/great-smoky-mountains-climate-change_n_1461482.html" target="_hplink">explains OurAmazingPlanet</a>. A study by a team from NASA's Precipitation Measurement Missions found that "light rainfall is the dominant form of precipitation in the region, accounting for 50 to 60 percent of a year's total, governing the regional water cycle." <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/28/great-smoky-mountains-climate-change_n_1461482.html" target="_hplink">OurAmazingPlanet</a> notes: <blockquote>The results suggest the area may be more susceptible to climate change than thought; as temperatures rise, more of the fine droplets from light rain will evaporate in the air and fail to reach the ground. Lower elevations will have to contend with not only higher temperatures, but less cloud cover.</blockquote>

  • California Beach Bums

    Along the California coast, beach communities are finding that it may be impossible to stop coastal erosion as global sea levels rise. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/02/beach-communities-moving-inward_n_1565122.html" target="_hplink">According to AP</a>, David Revell, a senior coastal scientist at <a href="http://www.pwa-ltd.com/" target="_hplink">ESA PWA</a>, acknowledged the relentless power of the sea, saying, "I like to think of it as getting out of the way gracefully." A <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/22/west-coast-sea-level-rise_n_1619568.html" target="_hplink">report released in June by the Natural Resources Defense Council</a> found that West Coast ocean levels will rise several inches in the next few decades. Sea levels along the California coast are expected to be six inches higher by 2030 and three feet higher by the end of the century. Despite the risks, another recent NRDC study found that <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/08/california-climate-change-study_n_1409312.html" target="_hplink">California is one of several states</a> with the best plans to deal with the effects of climate change.

  • Repeats Of The Titanic

    2012 could be a record year for the extent of Arctic sea ice at its yearly summer minimum. Walt Meier, a research scientist at the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center, said that with recent satellite observations, "It definitely portends a low-ice year, whether it means it will go below 2007 (the record minimum in September), it is too early to tell," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/18/arctic-sea-ice-levels_n_1605441.html" target="_hplink">reported LiveScience</a>. As sea ice declines in the Arctic, countries are anticipating a <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/16/arctic-climate-change-military-activity_n_1427565.html" target="_hplink">competition for control of shipping lanes and mineral extraction</a> in the region. In Antarctica, research from the United States' Palmer Station on the Antarctic Peninsula has found that "87 percent of the peninsula's land-bound glaciers are in retreat," <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/12/environmental-threats-antarctica_n_1669023.html" target="_hplink">reported OurAmazingPlanet</a>. Decreasing sea ice levels were also addressed in <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/18/shell-arctic-ready-hoax-greenpeace_n_1684222.html" target="_hplink">a recent spoof of Shell's plans to drill for oil in the Arctic this summer</a>.

  • Crazy Sugar Highs

    Climate change has already impacted sugarcane production in Indonesia. In late 2011, the <a href="http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2011/11/09/sugar-association-blames-climate-change-production-drop.html http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2011/11/09/sugar-association-blames-climate-change-production-drop.html" target="_hplink">chairman of the Indonesian Sugarcane Farmers Association said</a>, "sugarcane production decreased by up to 30 percent in 2011 due to climate change that has occurred since 2009."

  • Warning Joe: Coffee Extinct in The Future?

    Climate changes and insect invasions threaten the future supply of morning joe.

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