Oregon State University's effort to find the oldest ice on Earth begins this month in Antarctica

Oregon State University’s effort to find the oldest ice on Earth begins this month in Antarctica

A team of 22 scientists from Oregon State University’s Center for Oldest Ice Exploration (COLDEX) is traveling to Antarctica for the first field season to study the oldest ice on Earth and the climate records kept within it.

COLDEX is a National Science Foundation-funded science and technology center founded in 2021 and funded by a five-year, $25 million grant. The goal of the project is to locate, collect and analyze some of the planet’s oldest ice sheets, which provide an important record of Earth’s climate and environmental history and signal how the planet is responding to current increases in greenhouse gases in the atmosphere could.

Buried as snow for millions of years, Antarctic ice — and the dust trapped within it and tiny ancient air bubbles — is now providing scientists with important data about the atmospheric changes Earth has undergone. Scientists collect ice cores by drilling miles below the continent’s surface.

The cores are shipped to the NSF Ice Core Facility in Denver. From there, portions of the cores are sent to COLDEX researchers’ labs, where they perform chemical and other analyzes to learn more about climate conditions over time.

During the field season, researchers will explore areas of Antarctica that haven’t seen much scientific activity before, said COLDEX director Ed Brook, a paleoclimatologist at OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. As part of the project’s outreach, the scientists will also share more about their work in the field as they can during the season.

Much of the work will focus on the Allan Hills in East Antarctica, an area located where the ice sheet meets the Transantarctic Mountains. In the 2019-2020 field season, researchers now associated with COLDEX found ice in the “blue ice” that is two to three million years old.

Blue ice is blue in color due to the way light reflects off solid ice. The blue ice is found in areas near the ice margin where very old ice has been pushed to the surface by glacial flows. A field team will return to this site to drill for more ice.

A second team will explore nearby areas with ground-based ice-penetrating radar. These radar methods will characterize the region’s structure and help researchers identify possible areas for drilling an ice core some 1,100 meters deep.

A third team will be stationed at the South Pole, where the deep ice is relatively unexplored. This team will collect data by air, flying multiple missions to and from the South Pole Station.

“These scientists will fly specialized radar that maps the interior of the ice sheet, as well as use magnetometers and gravity gauges to understand the geological terrain beneath the ice,” Brook said.

The data collected by this team will help COLDEX researchers identify potential areas for drilling a 1.5-million-year-old ice core in future field seasons, which would be the oldest continuous ice core to date if the effort is successful.

After a delay this month due to a COVID outbreak at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, expedition members have finally started arriving on the continent. The two-month field season roughly corresponds to the peak of the Antarctic summer.

Peter Neff, a University of Minnesota glaciologist and climate scientist who serves as COLDEX director of fieldwork and data, will serve as the primary COLDEX liaison at McMurdo Station in Antarctica, where he will support all three field teams.

Neff, who runs the popular TikTok account @icy_pete, will also lead outreach and engagement efforts. He uses social media to record his research and fieldwork and has amassed almost 200,000 followers on TikTok. He plans to share updates on this year’s expedition during the field season.

In addition, COLDEX researchers expect weekly updates on the project’s website, www.coldex.org. In the past, researchers in the field had very few internet connections. This year, the team acquired a Starlink satellite terminal that they plan to deploy at field sites. That could allow for more reach while work is underway, Brook said.

Collaboration is fundamental to the work of COLDEX, which brings together experts from across the United States to work together and share knowledge about Earth’s climate system and its impacts, Brook said. Another key component of the project is the promotion of diversity in the field of geosciences by supporting research experiences for undergraduate and post-doctoral researchers.

The team for the field season reflects those goals, Brook said. The field teams and their members are:

  • Allan Hill’s ice core drilling team: Julia Marks Peterson, a graduate student at Oregon State; Sarah Shackleton and Yuzhen Yan, postdoctoral fellows at Princeton University; Austin Carter, a graduate student at the Scripps Institute of Oceanography; Elizabeth Morton and Michael Jayred of the US Ice Drilling Program; and Jonathan Hayden of Princeton, who will serve as camp manager.
  • Ground-based Geophysics Team: Research Professor Howard Conway and University of Washington graduate students Annika Horlings, John-Morgan Manos and Margo Shaya.
  • Airborne Geophysics Team: Duncan Young, Gonzalo Echeverry and Dillon Buhl from the University of Texas Institute of Geophysics; University of Texas graduate students Kristian Chan, Megan Kerr, and Shravan Kaundinya; researchers John Paden and Bradley Schroeder from the University of Kansas; and Jamin Greenbaum of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography.
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