Researchers in Greenland Drill 8,000' Down to Study 120,000-Year-Old Climate

By Joseph Calamia | July 29, 2010 4:59 pm

bedrockResearchers camped on the Greenland ice sheet hit bedrock this week after almost three years of drilling, reaching a depth of 8,000 feet. They hope that the ice they’ve uncovered from some 120,000 years ago, might give them a better understanding of what a warmer future might look like, if Greenland has less ice and the sea level rises.

The team, which is part of the North Greenland Eemian Ice Drilling (NEEM) project, is looking to learn more about carbon dioxide levels during the Eemian period, when global temperatures were over 2-3 degrees Celsius warmer and sea level was about 15 feet higher. They believe these conditions might mirror effects caused by the earth’s changing climate during the next century.

Scientists believe that by the end of the 21st century the planet will experience similar conditions again. Over the Greenland ice sheet, temperatures at the height of the Eemian may have been around 5 degrees Celsius warmer–mirroring the Arctic amplification of modern climate change. . . There are large uncertainties concerning the response of ice sheets to warming air and ocean temperatures. Understanding what happened to the Greenland ice sheet during the Eemian could help constrain projections of future sea level rise. [Nature]

The 120,000-year-old piece of ice retrieved this week was once snow. After about 200 feet worth of more snow piled on top, the pressure transformed that snow into ice, at the same time capturing atmospheric air in bubbles still present. Researchers hope to analyze the air inside to get the first Northern Hemisphere record of the carbon cycle from this period, by looking for concentrations of carbon dioxide in the bubbles.

Modern techniques that simultaneously measure selected chemical components, CO2 gas and CO2 gas isotopes. . . allow us to produce a high resolution CO2 record for Greenland. The record will be the first Northern Hemisphere record that provides information about the cycling, sources, and sinks of CO2. [NEEM project]

After removing outer layers of ice samples (to avoid contamination) researchers will melt or crush the ice (here’s a neat picture of the “crusher needles”) and then analyze the extracted air using laser absorption spectroscopy–researchers zap samples with laser light, and then measure the isotopic composition of the carbon dioxide that’s emitted. Additionally, researchers hope the samples might give them another glimpse of life that existed before the Eemian.

The last 2 m of ice above the bedrock contains rocks and other material that has not seen sunlight for hundreds of thousands of years. We expect the ice to be rich in DNA and pollen that can tell us about the plants that existed in Greenland before the site became covered with ice, perhaps as long as 3 million years ago. [NEEM project]

The team has also kept an online journal during their work in northwest Greenland. An excerpt from this week’s entry:

After a few runs with no penetration and totally grinded down cutters we made the decision to terminate the deep ice core drilling. We celebrated this with a glass of champagne in the drill trench and every nation present gave a small speech. . . . To imagine–it is done!! [NEEM journal]

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Image: NEEM

  • Daniel J. Andrews

    Exciting. I’ve been waiting for this moment. Well, not really…I’ve been waiting for the moment when they release some of their findings, but that’ll have to wait. For now, this is a good moment to celebrate though.

    Perhaps in a few years Dr. Richard Alley could do an update of his book The Two-Mile Time Machine and incorporate data from this newest work.

  • fatkid

    Yikes! 3 degrees warmer and 15 feet more ocean would be a different planet than ours. Wonder if the mega fauna will return if we fall by then.

  • Brian Too

    There’s something I just love about the idea of drilling through a great ice sheet like Greenland and reaching the bottom. These ice masses are a force of nature and most human activity (excepting perhaps Climate Change) are blips to them. Aboriginal people have lived there for thousands of years and their success is due to learning to respect the power of the ice and snow.

    To drill all the way down to bedrock, a place that hasn’t seen sunshine in 1,200 centuries, is amazing. The layered deposits, one per year, and being able to extract usable data from those layers, remarkable. It’s like the geology of sedimentary rock deposits, but in a more ephemeral medium.

  • I. Newton

    In the name of unbiased, apolitical science, instead of stating, “Scientists believe that by the end of the 21st century…” perhaps a more appropriate statement should have been, “Some scientists believe that by the end of the 21st century..”.

    It seems that some scientists conveniently overlook the fact that the Earth has been warming without any assistance from puny mankind for the past 40,000 years! As the the Earth becomes warmer the warming naturally accelerates.

  • Intellectualintegritysuppoeter

    I.Newton is right. Any honest news source will not use such source references as “scientists,” “scientific consensus,” or “most scientists.” They will say “some scientists” or “name of reporting scientist” or “a scientist at name of organization.” The failure to accept that no scientist speaks for “science” is either a sign of sloppy thinking (unprofessional for a journalist) or, more likely, an attempt to promote an intellectually dishonest journalist’s views.

  • Huron DeKoch-Payroll

    The Nature quote is true-scientists believe what they believe. Creation scientists believe something else, Christian Scientists believe a third thing, and well paid shills for the coal and oil industries are paid to pretend to believe what they say they believe, and try to sell those lies to the rubes and marks out there in the world.
    Science cannot be unbiased because it is the pursuit of verifiable truth, so by definition it is biased against the unverifiable and the false. As such science can never be apolitical, because much of politics involves convincing a majority of people that something is all good or all bad, which is rarely if ever the case. Global warming is the Lysenkoism of Britain and America’s right wing extremists, who are funded in the majority by the oil, coal, and gas industry.
    I am amused by suppoeters, however.

  • fatkid

    We are like the frog that boils to death, not realizing there’s a fire under the pot of water he is in. Global warming deniers should just be annoying background noise, like mosquitos.

    The difference between us and the frog is that the frog actually jumps out of the pot..

  • Barbara

    Hey fatkid, why do you think the U.S. govt. is dumping money into finding some other chunk of rock that might support life?

  • Tinman

    Re Denialism in all its forms, the question I never see asked is “what evidence or test WOULD cause you to at least rethink your belief?” Obviously pointing to the mountains of AGW evidence already in hand is not sufficient. Or the mountains of evidence supporting evolution. Or [fill in your favorite here]… so the question: what WOULD suffice?

  • Robert Thayer

    The antarctic ice core data [spanning 420,000 years] released in 2004 is curiously different form the presentation and the comments above [see First, those temperatures were 2C warmer than now for 5000 years and less than now for the remaining 10,000 years of that brief warm spell.
    We had an ice age [temperatures 4-8 C lower than now] from then until 12,000 years ago. As to Newton, above, the antarctic was cooling 40,000 years ago and only began warming 20,000 years ago. This rise lasted 10,000 years, melted the ice age and ended 10-12,000 years ago w the invention of agriculture and civilization along the Nile. We have enjoyed essentially constant ‘warm’ temperature since then. It will be interesting to see how the other end of the earth fared during these times. And there is no evidence of ‘naturally’ accelerating temperature over the last 10,000 years – not until 140 years ago, but that is not ‘natural’ as is clearly indicated by the CO2 concentration [the red line] which flips up vertically from 290 to 370 ‘instantly’ w no points above 300 prior to that. There are zoomed in graphs showing this transition at the web site.

  • miller

    Even if you believe that this current warming trend is part of a natural cycle and that humans did not cause it, why would we not want to do anything and everything in our power to slow or stop it? One would think that even those skeptical of a human cause of climate change would want to sign on to measures that will help control those things that make this “natural cycle” worse? Basic high school chemistry demonstrates that methane and other gases trap heat, why not consider how these things might make this “natural” situation worse? Floods and earthquakes are natural too, but everyone agrees on measures to protect against them. Learning about what the globe looked like last time this happened may give us some clues about not only what our children can expect but perhaps some things we can do to slow down the process.

  • Austin

    “It seems that some scientists conveniently overlook the fact that the Earth has been warming without any assistance from puny mankind for the past 40,000 years!”

    Except for those cool periods and that ice age thrown in the mix, right?

    No, it shouldn’t say “some scientists.” “Scientists” is correct. You climate change deniers are just like creationists, pretending that there is still a debate among the experts.

  • joan

    Yikes!!!!!! What kinds of exotic bacteria and viruses might have survived in that ice?


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