Ice Core Research

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Ice Core Research


Ice cores—long cylinders of ice drilled from glaciers and ice sheets—help provide a detailed picture of how global and regional climate has changed over thousands to hundreds of thousands of years. When snow falls, it captures samples of the atmosphere, along with its current concentrations of dust, ions, and important global climate forcing agents such as the greenhouse gases carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane. At high latitudes and altitudes where it is too cold for frequent melting, snow compresses into layer upon layer of ice, preserving these air bubbles for centuries to hundreds of millennia.

The mix of isotopes (atoms of the same element that have different atomic weights) of oxygen and hydrogen in this ice indicates past temperatures and how they varied over long periods of time. Thus, ice holds relatively detailed records of past climate fluctuations— clueing scientists in on changes in local precipitation, temperature, wind strength, moisture, and atmospheric composition. Combined with sea sediment cores and other measures that more roughly indicate climate shifts over the past few million years, ice core research helps provide a context in which to view human-caused climate change.

Historical Background and Scientific Foundations

The most thoroughly studied ice cores, which also hold the longest climate records, come from the vast ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland. In Antarctica, the most famous of these is the Vostok ice core—first drilled by Soviet engineers in the early 1980s—which revealed that long-term cycles of global warming and cooling brought on by changes in Earth's orbital parameters have been significantly amplified by changing atmospheric concentrations of CO2 and methane over the last 160,000 years.

In 1998, the Vostok project yielded one of the deepest ice cores ever recovered—reaching to a depth of 11,886 ft (3,623 m). It confirmed that greenhouse gases rose and fell with temperature over 420,000 years and over four regular, roughly 100,000-year natural cycles between cold glacial periods known as ice ages and warmer periods known as interglacials. The Dome C Antarctic ice core confirmed the same relationship over 740,000 years and seven glacial-interglacial cycles.

Although ice cores demonstrate that the long-term warming and cooling of Earth's climate, coupled with increases and decreases of greenhouse gases, are a natural phenomenon, they also show that current levels of atmospheric CO2 (about 360 parts per million) and methane (about 1,700 parts per billion) are unprecedented over the last several hundred thousand years. These inflated greenhouse gas concentrations—largely boosted by human alterations of the landscape and the burning of fossil fuels—may thus lead to a warming that is unprecedented in ice core records.

Impacts and Issues

Ice records from Greenland, where scientists have been drilling cores since the early 1960s, suggest that global climate has occasionally shifted abruptly within the framework of 100,000-year glacial-interglacial cycles. A Greenland ice core completed in 1992 showed that the first 8,000 years of the Eemian Period—an unusually warm interglacial cycle that ended 114,000 years ago— were characterized by wild swings in temperature, likely spurred by heat-driven changes in air and ocean currents such as the North Atlantic current and the global thermohaline. These temperature swings, with drops and spikes spanning up to 18°F (10°C), occurred over time periods as short as 10 to 30 years. Because the Eemian was just a few degrees warmer than our current climate, scientists believe its enormous instability may hint at conditions under our warmed future climate if human emissions of greenhouse gases go unchecked.

Meanwhile, ice cores from ice sheets and stable glaciers at mid- to low-latitudes, where most people live, provide compelling evidence that certain heavily populated regional climates are already warming. These cores also provide context for this change, showing how regional climates have fluctuated over the past several centuries before humans began keeping relevant records. For example, ice cores from the Upper Fremont Glacier, located 10,170 ft (3,100 m) above sea-level in Wyoming's Wind River mountain range, reveal that colder temperatures dominated the region from the mid-1700s to the mid-1800s during a relatively short cooling period known as the Little Ice Age. After that, ice cores show that the region's temperature climbed abruptly. Ice cores taken from glaciers on the Tibetan Plateau in Central Asia, meanwhile, show persistent warming since 1800, with the warmest temperatures occurring after 1950. They also reveal temperature variations related to short-term natural climate cycles.


FOSSIL FUELS: Fuels formed by biological processes and transformed into solid or fluid minerals over geological time. Fossil fuels include coal, petroleum, and natural gas. Fossil fuels are non-renewable on the timescale of human civilization, because their natural replenishment would take many millions of years.

GREENHOUSE GASES: Gases that cause Earth to retain more thermal energy by absorbing infrared light emitted by Earth's surface. The most important greenhouse gases are water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and various artificial chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons. All but the latter are naturally occurring, but human activity over the last several centuries has significantly increased the amounts of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide in Earth's atmosphere, causing global warming and global climate change.

ICE AGE: Period of glacial advance.

ICE SHEET: Glacial ice that covers at least 19,500 square mi (50,000 square km) of land and that flows in all directions, covering and obscuring the landscape below it.

INTERGLACIAL PERIOD: Sometimes called simply an interglacial: geological time period between glacial periods, which are periods when ice masses grow in the polar regions and at high elevations. The world is warmer during interglacials. The world is presently experiencing an interglacial that began about 11,000 years ago.

SEA SEDIMENT CORE: Cylindrical, solid sample of a layered deposit of sediment on the ocean floor, cut out of the deposit at right angles to its bedding planes. Sediment cores have been obtained from the bottoms of the oceans and many large lakes, such as Titicaca in South America and Tanganyika in Africa. Information about past climate changes can be derived from sediment cores, as the types and abundances of dead marine organisms (e.g., algae and foraminifera) in each sediment layer reflect climate conditions at the time the layer was laid down.

THERMOHALINE CIRCULATION: Large-scale circulation of the world ocean that exchanges warm, low-density surface waters with cooler, higher-density deep waters. Driven by differences in temperature and saltiness (halinity) as well as, to a lesser degree, winds and tides. Also termed meridional overturning circulation.

Scientists are concerned that many of these important mid- and low-latitude ice records may be lost within the next century, as they are vulnerable to melting. Indeed, many glaciers and ice sheets outside Antarctica and Greenland have been in a state of precipitous retreat since the mid-1800s.

See Also Abrupt Climate Change; Antarctica: Observed Climate Changes; Antarctica: Role in Global Climate; Anthropogenic Change; Arctic Melting: Greenland Ice Cap; Feedback Factors; Geologic Time Scale; Glacier Retreat; Greenhouse Gases; Ice Ages; Ocean Circulation and Currents; Paleoclimatology; Polar Ice.



Solomon, S., et al, eds. Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis: Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007.


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DeWayne, L., et al. “Global Ice Core Research: Understanding and Applying Environmental Records of the Past.” USGS Fact Sheet (April 2000).

EPICA Community Members. “Eight Glacial Cycles from an Antarctic Ice Core.” Nature 429 (2004): 623–628.

Etheridge, D. M., et al. “Natural and Anthropogenic Changes in Atmospheric CO2 Over the Last 1,000 Years from Air in Antarctic Ice and Firn.” Journal of Geophysical Research 101 (1996): 4115–4128.

Jouzel, J., et al. “Vostok Ice Core: A Continuous Isotope Temperature Record Over the Last Climatic Cycle (160,000 years).” Nature 329 (1987): 403–408.

Nielsen, Rolf Haugaard. “The Climate Conundrum: Chill Warnings from Greenland.” New Scientist (August 28, 1993).

Thompson, Lonnie G., et al. “Tropical Glacier and Ice Core Evidence of Climate Change on Annual to Millennial Time Scales.” Climatic Change 59 (2003): 137–155.

Web Sites

Morrison, Michael. “Ice Cores that Tell the Past.” Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2. <> (accessed November 29, 2007).

Sarah Gilman