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Notes from the Field

When Canada Stands In for Antarctica

October 21st, 2011 by Patrick Lynch

By Summer Ruper

Hello SEAT blog followers. I am Summer Ruper, and I would like to share with you a little bit of the ice coring adventure that begins well before the field team heads to Antarctica. Before we start drilling ice cores in the harsh cold and wind of Antarctica, we have to train our field team on the drill and sampling procedures. To do this, we took a trip to a slightly warmer region with ice: Athabasca Glacier in the Columbia Ice Field. Athabasca Glacier is near the Canadian town of Banff, and is one of the most visited glaciers in the world. It’s a beautiful area, and plenty of ice to play with.

To begin, we must first answer the question: What is an ice core? Simply put, it is a core sample collected from a glacier or ice sheet. But the ice core is not entirely made up of ice; with the snow fall and wind also come dust, salts, and even ash from volcanic eruptions. All of this is contained in the ice cores and provides information about how snowfall, temperature, and winds have changed over time. A lot of important information is buried in the ice and snow on glaciers and ice sheets, but you have to get the ice out in order to get at that information.

Piece of ice with bubbles inside. These bubbles provide information on the composition of the atmosphere at the time they were trapped in the ice.

In order to collect the ice cores, we use a specially designed ice core drill. The one we use is called the FELICS, and is designed and manufactured by Felix and Dieter Stampfli in Switzerland. Basically, the drill has a sharp ring on the end that cuts the ice and feeds the core into a one-meter long barrel. We pull the one-meter section up, empty it out of the barrel, and then drill another one-meter ice core from the bottom of the hole. We do this over and over again until we have drilled to a depth of about 20 meters, and have about 20 one-meter long ice cores.

Randy Skinner, Jessica Williams, and BYU students drilling an ice core on Athabasca Glacier.

On Athabasca Glacier, our field crew learned how to operate the drill, handle the ice cores, and generally deal with problems that might arise. We were also able to show the tourists visiting that glacier how the drill worked, let them see (and taste) the ice, and share a little of our knowledge and excitement about glaciers and the environmental records contained in the ice. We had a lot of fun, and Jessica and Randy are excited to transfer this experience to our work on the Antarctic ice sheet soon.

In another post, we will show you what we do with the ice cores once they return to the lab and share some of our preliminary results from last year’s ice cores.

Jessica Williams, Randy Skinner, and Summer Rupper look for the “perfect” spot to drill a core.

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5 Responses to “When Canada Stands In for Antarctica”

  1. D. Trent says:

    I would like to use the image of Michelle Koutnik preparing a core of Antarctic ice (taken by Lora Koenig/NASA) that appears in Notes from the Field, “The Road to Antarctica Begins in Kansas.” I wish to use this in the next edition of my college textbook, Geology and the Environment.

    Please advise about permission procedure.

  2. ann mullen says:

    Its great to see the work your doing, I’m a mature sturdent (61) and I’m in my final year in College, for a single honours degree in Geography at NUI Maynooth, Ireland. One of my modules is Quaternary Environmental, I’m discovering how to analysis the finding of ice core in which provides interglacier and glacier time, so if you have any other information I’d love to hear from you.

    Good look with your finding it looks great.


  3. Mike Smith says:

    Do you have to contend with ruptures in the record caused by ancient avalanches, etc?

    • Lora Keonig says:

      Where we drill in Antarctica there are no ruptures in the ice. We drill in area’s were the ice is very still purposely so the past record of time is in chronological order. The firn, snow that is more than a year old, that we drill compacts over time making it denser but it does not flow horizontally.

  4. Jack says:

    Its just like Jurrasic park, but instead of DNA, you guys are looking for weather data.. Wish i could do something so exciting..