Frosty Archive What Greenland's Ice Sheet Tells Us About Climate Change

As part of a spectacular research project recently launched in the vast expanses of Greenland, researchers drilling core samples from the country's massive ice sheet to learn more about climate history and the speed of meltage.

An EastGRIP drill core

An EastGRIP drill core

Around a half dozen ice cores have already been drilled in Greenland. In projects with names like NEEM, GRIP or GISP, scientists have gathered kilometers of samples.

By studying tiny bubbles of gas trapped in the ice, scientists have been able to reconstruct 130,000 years of climate history, including the Eemian interglacial period. During that period dating 115,000 to 130,000 years ago, Greenland was 3 to 5 degrees Celsius warmer then it is today. The sea level was also 5 meters higher. In a way, this period provides a glimpse into the world's future with man-made climate change.

But if we know all that, why do we need to take more core samples? The EastGRIP project certainly won't enable us to look back any further into climate history. Drilling projects in the Antarctic are much more interesting in this respect. On the other side of the globe, scientists are currently researching ice that is over 1 million years old.

"We have learned something new with every core that we have drilled so far," says Bruce Vaughn, a glaciologist from the University of Colorado in Boulder. This time, too, gases from past climates that are trapped in the ice will be analyzed. And new advances in mass spectrometer technology will provide EastGRIP scientists with unprecedented details as they peer back into climate history.

A period of time dating back some 3,000 to 8,000 years ago is especially interesting. In previous efforts, extracted cores from this section, which lies 500 to 1,300 meters (1,640 to 4,265 feet) beneath the surface, burst into fragments when they reached the surface. Bubbles of gas that are trapped in the ice in this part of the core can expand when the core is pulled up to the surface. Simply put, this can make the samples explode. Scientists at EastGRIP plan to handle the cores as carefully as they possibly can in order to prevent that from happening.

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