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Geosciences Column: The hunt for Antarctica’s oldest time capsule

Geosciences Column: The hunt for Antarctica’s oldest time capsule

The thick packs of ice that pepper high peak of the world’s mountains and stretch far across the poles make an unusual time capsule. As it forms, air bubbles are trapped in the ice, allowing scientists to peer into the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere long ago. Today’s Geosciences Column is brought to you by PhD researcher Ruth Amey, who writes about recently published research which reveals how a team of scientists might have found the oldest ice yet, which has important implications for our understanding of how Earth’s environment has changed over time.

Ice cores give us a slice through the past. By analysing the composition of ice and gas bubbles trapped within it, we can find out information about temperature, atmospheric conditions, deposition and even the magnetic field strength of the past.

This helps us to understand past conditions on the Earth, but currently the longest record is ~800,000 years (800 kyrs) old. One phenomenon scientists hope to understand better is a change in glaciation cycles. During the Mid-Pleistocene Transition, glaciation cycles changed from 40,000 year cycles related to the obliquity periodicity of the Earth’s orbit to longer, stronger 100,000 year cycles. Scientists of the ice-core community have their eyes on finding out why this change happened, and for this they need data from the onset of the change, between 1250 and 700 kyrs ago.

Which means we need much, much older ice.

A new study, published in EGU’s open access journal The Cryosphere has pinned down two locations where they think the base of Antarica’s ice sheet is significantly older. In fact they believe the ice could be as old as 1.5 million years, which would extend the current ice core record by ~700,000 years: nearly doubling it.

A Treasure hunt – using airborne radar and some simple models

The group, led by Frederic Parrenin at University of Grenoble Alpes, France, went on the hunt for the oldest ice East Antarctica could give them. The survival of ice is an interplay between many factors: the ice acts a little bit like a conveyor belt, being fed by accumulation, with the oldest information lost off the end by basal melting. This means areas of thinner ice, where there is less basal heating, often has a higher likelihood of the old, information-rich ice surviving.

Figure 2: A cross-section of ice in East Antarctica, from surface to bedrock, with colour bar showing the modelled ice age. The model identifies two patches of ice older than 1.5 Myr (shown in white): North Patch and Little Dome D Patch. Adapted from Figure 3 of Parrenin et al 2017.

Airborne radar can ‘see’ into the top three-quarters of the East Antarctica ice sheet. By identifying reflections within it, isochrones of ice of the same age can be traced. Parrenin’s group exploited an area in East Antarctica known as ‘Dome C’ with rich record of radar investigations. Using information derived from the radar, they then created a mathematical model, which balanced accumulation rate, heat flow and melting to give a simple 1-D ice flow model. This helps locate areas of accumulation and melting, which gives an indication of where ice might be the oldest, beyond the sight of the airborne radar. A nearby ice-core, EDC, also provided corroboration of their model.

X Marks the Spot

The team located two sites where they believe the ice to be older than 1.5 million years old, named Little Dome C and North Patch. And fortunately these sites are within a few tens of kilometres from the Concordia research facility, meaning drilling them is a real possibility.

This ancient ice could give vital insight into what happened in the Mid-Pleistocene Transition. What caused the new glaciation cycle onset? Was it a change in sea ice extent? A change in atmospheric dust? Decrease in carbon dioxide concentrations? Changes in the Earth’s orbit? The answers may well be locked in the ice.

By Ruth Amey, Postgraduate Researcher at the University of Leeds

 

References and Resources

Parrenin, F., Cavitte, M. G. P., Blankenship, D. D., Chappellaz, J., Fischer, H., Gagliardini, O., Masson-Delmotte, V., Passalacqua, O., Ritz, C., Roberts, J., Siegert, M. J., and Young, D. A.: Is there 1.5-million-year-old ice near Dome C, Antarctica?, The Cryosphere, 11, 2427-2437, https://doi.org/10.5194/tc-11-2427-2017, 2017

Berger, A., Li, X. S., and Loutre, M. F.: Modelling northern hemisphere ice volume over the last 3 Ma, Quaternary Sci. Rev., 18, 1–11, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0277-3791(98)00033-X, 1999

Imbrie, J. Z., Imbrie-Moore, A., and Lisiecki, L. E.: A phase-space model for Pleistocene ice volume, Earth Planet. Sc. Lett., 307, 94–102, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2011.04.018, 2011

Jean Jouzel, Valérie Masson-Delmotte, Deep ice cores: the need for going back in time, In Quaternary Science Reviews, Volume 29, Issues 27–28, Pages 3683-3689, ISSN 0277-3791, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.quascirev.2010.10.002, 2010

Martínez-Garcia, A., Rosell-Melé, A., Jaccard, S. L., Geibert, W., Sigman, D. M., and Haug, G. H.: Southern Ocean dust-climate coupling over the past four million years, Nature, 476, 312–315, doi:10.1038/nature10310, 2011

Tziperman, E., and H. Gildor, On the mid-Pleistocene transition to 100-kyr glacial cycles and the asymmetry between glaciation and deglaciation times, Paleoceanography, 18(1), 1001, doi:10.1029/2001PA000627, 2003

Wessel, P. and W. H. F. Smith, Free software helps map and display data, EOS Trans. AGU, 72, 441, 1991

Imaggeo on Mondays: The best of imaggeo in 2017

Imaggeo on Mondays: The best of imaggeo in 2017

Imaggeo, our open access image repository, is packed with beautiful images showcasing the best of the Earth, space and planetary sciences. Throughout the year we use the photographs submitted to the repository to illustrate our social media and blog posts.

For the past few years we’ve celebrated the end of the year by rounding-up some of the best Imaggeo images. But it’s no easy task to pick which of the featured images are the best! Instead, we turned the job over to you!  We compiled a Facebook album which included all the images we’ve used  as header images across our social media channels and on Imaggeo on Mondays blog post in 2017 an asked you to vote for your favourites.

Today’s blog post rounds-up the best 12 images of Imaggeo in 2017, as chosen by you, our readers.

Of course, these are only a few of the very special images we highlighted in 2017, but take a look at our image repository, Imaggeo, for many other spectacular geo-themed pictures, including the winning images of the 2017 Photo Contest. The competition will be running again this year, so if you’ve got a flare for photography or have managed to capture a unique field work moment, consider uploading your images to Imaggeo and entering the 2018 Photo Contest.

Alpine massifs above low level haze . Credit: Hans Volkert (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

The forward scattering of sunlight, which is caused by a large number of aerosol particles (moist haze) in Alpine valleys, gives the mountain massifs a rather plastic appearance. The hazy area in the foreground lies above the Koenigsee lake; behind it the Watzmann, Hochkalter, Loferer Steinberge and Wilder Kaiser massifs loom up behind one other to the right of the centre line. Behind them is the wide Inn valley, which extends right across the picture.

A lava layer cake flowing . Credit: Timothée Duguet (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Check out a post from back in May to discover how layers of alternating black lavas and red soils built up to form a giant ‘mille feuilles’ cake at Hengifoss, Iceland’s third-highest waterfall.

Sediment makes the colour . Credit: Eva P.S. Eibl (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Earth is spectacularly beautiful, especially when seen from a bird’s eye view. This image, of a sweeping pattern made by a river in Iceland is testimony to it. Follow the link to learn more about river Leirá which drains sediment-loaded glacial water from the Myrdalsjökull glacier in Iceland.

Movement of ancient sand . Credit: Elizaveta Kovaleva (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Snippets of our planet’s ancient past are frozen in rocks around the world. By studying the information locked in formations across the globe, geoscientist unpick the history of Earth. The layers in one of the winning images of the 2017 photo contest may seem abstract to the untrained eye, but Elizaveta Kovaleva (a researcher at the University of the Free State in South Africa) describes how they reveal the secrets of ancient winds and past deserts in a blog post we published in November.

View of the Tuva River and central mountain range
. Credit: Lisa-Marie Shillito (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Initially, this photo may seem like any other tropical paradise: lush forests line a meandering river, but there is much more to the forests in the foreground than first meets the eye.

On the way back from Antarctica. Credit: Baptiste Gombert (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Our December 2017 header image – On the way back from Antarctica, by Baptiste Gombert – celebrated #AntarcticaDay.

Angular unconformity. Credit: André Cortesão (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

It is not unusual to observe abrupt contacts between two, seemingly, contiguous rock layers, such as the one seen above. This type of contact is called an unconformity and marks two very distinct times periods, where the rocks formed under very different conditions.

Find a new way . Credit: Stefan Winkler (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Stephan Winkler’s 2017 Imaggeo Photo Contest finalist photo showcases an unusual weather phenomenon…find out more about this process in the post from last year.

On the way back from Antarctica. Credit: Alicia Correa Barahona (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

August’s social media header image showcases how, in the altiplano of Bolivia, Andean ecosystems, life and the hydrological cycle come together.

Icelandic valley created during a volcanic eruption. Credit: Manuel Queisser (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

The image shows a valley in the highland of Iceland carved out during a volcanic eruption with lava coming from the area visible in the upper right corner. The landscape is playing with the viewers sense of relation as there is no reference. The valley is approximately 1 km wide. The lower cascade of the water fall is ca. 30 m high. A person (ca. 3 pixels wide) is located near the base of the water fall about 50 m away. It was our October header image.

Despite being one of the driest regions on Earth, the Atacama desert is no stranger to catastrophic flood events. This post highlights how the sands, clays and muds left behind once the flood waters recede can hold the key to understanding this natural hazard.

The heart of the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Credit: Jennifer Ziesch (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

“I saw one of the most beautiful place on earth: The glacially-fed Moraine Lake in the Banff National Park, Canada. The lake is situated in the Valley of the Ten Peaks. The beautiful blue colour is due to the mix of glacier water and rock flour,” says Jennifer, who took the photograph of this tranquil setting.

Symbiosis of fire, ice and water . Credit: Michael Grund (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

This mesmerising photograph is another of the fabulous finalists (and winner) of the 2017 imaggeo photo contest. The picture, which you can learn more about in this blog post, was taken at Storforsen, an impressive rapid in the Pite River in northern Sweden, located close to the site of a temporary seismological recording station which is part of the international ScanArray project. The project focuses on mapping the crustal and mantle structure below Scandinavia using a dense temporary deployment of broadband seismometers.

f you pre-register for the 2018 General Assembly (Vienna, 08 – 13 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 15 January up until 15 February, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: A spectacular rainbow

Imaggeo on Mondays: A spectacular rainbow

Back in February 2005, François Dulac and Rémi Losno worked in the field in the very remote Kerguelen Islands (also known as the Desolation Islands). Located in the southern Indian Ocean they are one, of the two, only exposed parts of the mostly submerged Kerguelen Plateau.

Our work consisted in sampling atmospheric aerosols and their deposition by rain on the island, which is a meeting point for the roaring fourties (strong westerly winds found in the Southern Hemisphere between 40 and 50 degrees latitude) and the equally turbulent furious fifties (which occur at more southerly latitudes still).

The aim of the study was to evaluate the input of chemical elements (in very low concentrations) derived from continental soil dust, to the remote surface waters of the Southern Ocean. Given the scarcity of land areas at this latitude, the particles were expected to have travelled long distances before arriving at Kerguelen.

For example, iron – one of the major elements in the Earth crust and soils – is of particular interest in this oceanic area because it is a micro-nutrient that limits the productivity (and related CO2 sink) of the Southern Ocean.

The island’s air was often very clear and the horizontal visibility unusually high, as can be seen in the photo. It highlights that atmospheric aerosol concentrations (the mixture of solid and liquid particles from natural and anthropogenic sources) are very low in this environment. Field sampling and subsequent chemical analyses require constraining protocols adapted to ultra-traces in order to minimize contamination of samples and blank levels.

The unique atmospheric conditions also meant we had problems estimating distances: we often found ourselves underestimating the stretch between two points during our long walks between the base and our remote sampling stations. In addition, the combination of very clean air, low sun and fast running atmospheric low-pressure systems carrying water clouds at low-level over the cold ocean make rainbows relatively frequent.

Walking back to the base after changing samples, we were caught in a rain shower. Raindrops were almost falling horizontally due to the high wind speed, leaving the soil dry downwind of the stones and rocks lying on the ground. A few minutes later clouds had passed and sunlight reflecting and diffracting in the cloud droplets offered us a spectacular semi-circular rainbow.

It was particularly special because it displayed an infrequent combination of (i) the main, classic, bright rainbow that shows up at 138-140 degrees from the direction of the sunlight, (ii) a secondary rainbow due to double reflection of sunlight in droplets that appears higher on the horizon at an angle of about 127-130 degrees and with an inversion of colours compared to the main bow (red inside), and (iii) one supernumerary rainbow with pastel green, pink and purple fringes on the inner side of the primary bow.

This stacked rainbow is caused by interferences and was first explained in 1804 by Thomas Young. It indicates the presence of small, uniformly sized droplets.  The dark area visible here on the right-hand side between the primary and secondary rainbows is called the Alexander’s band, after the ancient Greek philosopher Alexander of Aphrodisias comments on Aristotle’s Meteorology treatise, published in the early 3rd century. It is due to a lack of light resulting from the fact that diffracted rays are either reflected back inside the primary rainbow (causing this area to be brighter) or outside the secondary rainbow.

By François Dulac, Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l’EnvironnementCEA/LSCE, Gif-sur-Yvette, France

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/.