600-year-old blocks of ice which hold key to climate analysis displayed at Science Museum

By Culture24 Staff | 13 December 2010
A photo of two ice cores
Ice cores containing air dating to 1410 have gone on show at the Science Museum
A glacier containing 600-year-old blocks of ice full of air trapped in Antarctica has gone on display at the Science Museum in London.

The “ice core”, collected by drilling teams from the UK and US during the British Antarctic Survey of 1989, will be shown inside a specially adapted medical freezer in the futuristic new Atmosphere climate change gallery.

The cylinders of ice hold tiny bubbles of air revealing the composition of the earth and carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, giving scientists crucial information in their attempts to analyse global warming.

“Ice cores reveal a record of climate and environmental change covering many hundreds of thousands of years,” says Professor Chris Rapley, the Director of the Science Museum.

“In my experience the sight and story of the extraction of ice cores, and what they tell us, never fails to enthral.

“Being confronted with a piece of ice that fell as snowfall, tens, hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and being able to see for yourself the bubbles of ancient air trapped within it, is like travelling back in time and is a significant moment for anyone, including the climate scientists.

“I have witnessed the awe-inspiring ‘epiphany moment’ these cores of ice can have on people as they view, or even better, feel and listen to an ephemeral object brought back to us from almost unimaginable depths of time.”

The cores show that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has varied between 180 parts per million, during ice ages, to 300 parts per million in warm periods. The mean temperature of the Earth has also cooled and warmed by as much as ten degrees Celsius in the Polar regions.

“Today the level of CO2 in the atmosphere is close to 390ppm, 35% higher than at any time in the past 800,000 years, and is continuing to increase at a rate of 2ppm per year, which is 100 times faster than any other significant change we’ve seen in the ice core record,” explained renowned glaciologist Dr Robert Mulvaney, of the Survey team.

“Ice cores have allowed us to see in detail that greenhouse gases are so well-related to temperature and have brought the world’s attention to the fact that carbon dioxide and methane levels are now at levels far higher than they’ve ever been in the last 800,000 years.”

The Gallery has accompanied the core with a collection of portraits, notebooks and objects highlighting the work of four climate science pioneers – inventor Guy Callendar, physicist John Tyndall, Swedish chemist Svante Arrhenius and Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, who is widely credited with discovering the Greenhouse Effect.
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