Wonderful Things: Antarctic ice core

Faced with mounting concerns over climate change and global warming, we look to the scientists for answers, to explain what exactly is going on and what can be done to remedy it.

This is how we know what we know about climate change today: scientists, like good detectives, have to look  into the past to find clues to help them form a better picture of what is taking place now. By doing this they can ascertain what environments and climates were like on our planet millions of years ago, and so helping us understand where we stand today.

Can scientists travel through time?

Yes, but not in the “Doc Brown” way you are imagining.

 In a technique that is similar to the way we determine ages of trees and  have given a time of extinction for the dinosaurs , a sample of ice, known as an ice core is taken. This is basically a cylindrical cross section of ice, showing various layers of ice that were laid down over hundred of thousands of years. From this we can see what our world was like back before humans even existed.

The ice core in the Atmosphere gallery

The ice core in the Atmosphere gallery

How is this possible?

As scientists peer at this ancient shaft of ice they explore the various layers. Each layer corresponds to a year or sometimes a season. Within these layers lay trapped everything that fell that year including dust, pollen and atmospheric gases. Seasonal swings are detected and thus our past weather patterns are indicated, which gives us a clue as to what we should be experiencing now.

This is one of the reasons we know something is wrong. If we were to go by previous climate patterns, our planet should be getting colder not warmer, bu the unexpected turn has been attributed to the increased production if greenhouse gases.  

The Atmosphere gallery houses the first ice core sample in the world to be put on display! Taken from the Antarctic, almost 200ft beneath the top of the ice in 1989.

If you had all the money in the world, what would you do to preserve the environment?

In fact, is it more important to save the environment or learn to adapt to a changing climate?

Where will you live when the sea levels rise?

And if you’re going to be looking at climate change with your students, you can use Cloud Control, a game about geo-engineering the climate, to get them started on the topic. Cloud Control is part of our new online game suite Futurecade, launching next week!

The ice core is in the Atmosphere gallery, on the 2nd floor of the Wellcome wing

-James Carmody

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