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Ice Scientists of the Future Will Study Glaciers That No Longer Exist

Glaciologists are stocking up on ice cores to ensure a future for their field

Ice cores in Colorado are stored in a freezer at -33F. The core pictured here is from Greenland. (Roger Ressmeyer/CORBIS)
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Next year, paleoclimatologist Patrick Ginot will drill into a glacier in the French Alps to collect more samples than he can use, reports Neil Savage for Nature Jobs. Of the three cylinders that he extracts, each tens of meters long, two will be for paleoclimatologists of the future, who, thanks to climate change, will likely be living in a world with less ice.

As glaciers melt, so do the secrets of our planet's past. Paleoclimatologists use ice cores to get information about hundreds of thousands of years of weather, frozen in time, in the form of bubbles of ancient atmosphere and bits of volcanic ash from eruptions long ago. Though recent history is melting first, those top layers are important for calibrating the dates of the rest of the core. 

So in February, Ginot proposed his “one core for science, two cores for storage” solution, Savage reports. The approach means that he'll have to stay three times longer in the Alps, and then figure out the logistics of transporting the spare cores to a facility in Antarctica. It will be costly, too, and requires convincing grant agencies that archiving ice is as important, as worth spending money on, as studying it right now.

Scientists already store the material that they can't use right away. There are 17,000 ice cores at the National Ice Core Laboratory in Colorado alone. Pieces are mailed out upon requested, in tracked packages with cold packs. With tropical glaciers like Peru's Quelccaya melting fast enough to be gone entirely by the end of the century, it's not hard to imagine that mail order will someday be the only way for these scientists to access ice.

About Shannon Palus

Shannon Palus is a science writer, and a researcher for Popular Science. Her work has appeared in Discover, Slate, Ars Technica, and elsewhere. She is based in Philadelphia.

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