On a recent visit to Crystal Ice Cave in Idaho, climate and cave researchers had to wade through frigid, knee-deep water to reach the ice formations that give the cave its name. Cavers are good-humored about the hardships of underground exploration, but this water was chilling for more than one reason: it was carrying away some of the very clues they had come to study.
Ice is an invaluable source of information about the earth’s past. Pollen trapped in ice from polar ice caps and mountaintop glaciers documents plant life up to 1.5 million years ago, and gas bubbles and water isotopes reveal glimpses of ancient temperatures.
Polar ice samples cannot necessarily reveal what the climate was like in, say, New Mexico or other temperate regions, however. So a decade ago a small group of researchers began meeting to discuss the potential of cave ice, some of which is more than 3,000 years old. Since then, studies have confirmed that cave ice can illuminate some questions about how lower altitudes and latitudes responded to climate swings. But by this summer, when the scientists found themselves wading through the meltwater in Crystal Ice Cave during their biennial workshop, the main question had changed from what the ice could tell them to how to retrieve enough before it disappeared.
Thus far researchers have not won much funding for long-term studies of ice caves. Part of the reason is that obtaining a sample is a massive, expensive effort, requiring intense drilling, helicopters and refrigerated vans. And geochemist Zoltán Kern of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest notes that he understands funders’ qualms because scientists have not yet figured out how to convert complicated cave ice data into tidy climate records. But this much is clear, says George Veni, director of the National Cave and Karst Research Institute in Carlsbad, N.M.: before the ice melts, “the main thing is to try and collect as much of it as possible.”
First published by Scientific American: [html] [html en español] [pdf].
See also my previous feature stories on cave ice in Science Magazine and EARTH Magazine.
Climate change negotiators agreed Sunday to monitor deforestation and to pay developing countries for keeping carbon trapped in forests. To measure just how much forest those countries are conserving, the United Nations Collaborative Program on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries (REDD+, to its friends) will rely on a complex system of satellite measurements and field checks. The agreement is a victory for advocates in the research and conservation communities. Yet they face a lot of work implementing the program. Continue reading
Researchers are about to take a big step toward better understanding a tiny air pollutant. A U.N. expert panel earlier this month agreed on a technical road map that will guide the first multinational effort to create a standardized emissions inventory of black carbon, a kind of microscopic soot particle. Scientists say that black carbon emissions play an important but poorly understood role in both global climate change and air pollution. Continue reading
The sky north of Ellesmere Island had just cleared when Matevz Lenarcic, flying alone in a Pipistrel Virus airplane at around 3,600m (10,000ft), got a call on his satellite phone. His friend following the weather on a computer in Slovenia had spotted heavy clouds and snow closing in on Lenarcic’s destination, an airfield near Resolute Bay, in the Canadian Arctic.
Lenarcic, a Slovenian pilot and adventurer, had departed Longyearbyen, Norway, early that morning. When he reached the North Pole, he tipped the ultralight plane’s wings over and circled the Pole in a whimsical, if brief, round-the-world flight. Two hours later, shivering despite the immersion suit he wore, Lenarcic faced a more serious decision: race the storm to Resolute Bay or divert to Eureka, a nearby weather station with no facilities for protecting his plane after landing.