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,, 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,, 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,, 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,, 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: Ice drilling

Ice drilling in Saratov

This week’s Imaggeo on Monday’s post, captured by Maksim Cherviakov, shows students from Saratov National Research University practicing a method to measure lake ice thickness. The students are using an ice auger to manually burrow through the ice. Afterwards, the ice depth is recorded using a tape measure.

“We measure ice thickness every year on the lakes located in the floodplain of the Volga river near Saratov. There are many number of ways to measure the thickness of ice but we use the easiest method. Students also measure air temperature, snow cover and structure of ice. The obtained data can give us information about the dynamics of changes in characteristics of lakes”, says Maksim

When is ice safe to stand on?

Many countries experience cold enough weather for frozen lakes and rivers to be used for recreational and professional activities. It is therefore essential to know the ice thickness and the associated weight limit restrictions. The US State of Minnesota, which experiences average winter temperatures of -9 to -16 degrees Celsius, published this guide (shown below) for people wanting to use its frozen waters. Ice must be at least 8-12 inches (20-30 cm) thick for cars to safely drive on.

Ice thickness guidelines

General ice thickness guidelines. Credit: Minnesota Department of Natural Resources.

Regular analysis of ice thickness, using manual methods like the one shown above or using more automated methods, can help avoid accidents. The video below shows what can happen when isn’t checked. Fortunately, in this instance, no injuries occurred. The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources recommend that vehicles should be parked at least 150 metres apart and moved every two hours to prevent sinking.


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


Imaggeo on Mondays: Rock glaciers

Imaggeo on Mondays: Rock glaciers

Picture a glacier and you probably imagine a vast, dense mass of slow moving ice; the likes of which you’d expect to see atop the planet’s high peaks and at high latitudes. Now, what if not all glaciers look like that?

Take some ice, mix in some rock, snow and maybe a little mud and the result is a rock glacier. Unlike ice glaciers (the ones we are most familiar with), rock glaciers have very little ice at the surface. Instead, the ice is locked in between the other components, or forms a solid, central structure. Looking at the rock glacier on the flanks of the Heart Peaks shield volcano in northwestern British Columbia (pictured above) you’d be forgiven for thinking this isn’t a glacier at all!

Rock glaciers move down slopes, slowly; typically at speeds which range from a few millimetres per year, up to a few meters. The movement is driven by gravity and usually due to gliding at the base of the glacier, or sometimes due to internal deformation of the ice.

How do the impressive landforms come about? The jury is still out, with the merits of a number of explanations still being debated. Some argue that they are due to geomorphic processes that result from seasonal thawing of snow in areas of permafrost; while others suggest the explanation is simpler: as a glacier wastes, it leaves behind an increasing amount of rock debris as the ice melts. It may be that rock glaciers are the result of a landslide covered glacier melting, or the mixing of a glacier with a landslide it encounters in its way down-slope…

Whatever the exact cause of the rock glacier on the flank of Hearts Peak, it remains a particularly striking example of the landform, given its unusual pink(ish) colour. The dormant volcano is characterised by steep-sided lava domes which are composed of porphyitic rhyolites  and, to a lesser extent, trachytic rocks, which give rise to the unusual colouring of this rock glacier.

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

Imaggeo on Mondays: Snow and ash in Iceland

Imaggeo on Mondays: Snow and ash in Iceland

Featuring today on the blog is the land of ice and fire: Iceland. That title was never better suited to (and exemplified), than it is in this photograph taken by Daniel Garcia Castellanos in June 2013. Snow capped peaks are also sprinkled by a light dusting of volcanic ash. Dive into this post to find out the source of the ash and more detail about the striking peak.

The picture is dominated by a snowed mountain in Southern Iceland, captured in June 2013, three years after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption. When Eyjafjallajokull erupted, it sent ash kilometers high into the atmosphere disrupting the air traffic in most Europe for weeks.

“This striking Icelandic landscape also inspired Tolkien’s fantasy in The Lord of the Rings,” explains Daniel, a researcher at the  Instituto de Ciencias de la Tierra Jaume Almera, in Barcelona.

Eyjafjallajokull is located in the Eastern Volcanic Zone in southern Iceland and the area photographed is among the youngest (less than 0.7 yr in age) and most active areas of Iceland, right on the contact where the Eurasian and the North American tectonic plates meet.The black rock seen in the image is tephra – fragments of rock that are produced when magma or or rock is explosively ejected (USGS) – from the neighboring Torfajökull rhyolitic stratovolcanic system, know for its cone shaped volcanoes built from layer upon layer of lava rich in silica and consequently very viscous. The light-green colour consists of the ubiquitous Icelandic moss.

In the image, the remnants of winter white snow are dotted with fine grey ashes from the Eyjafjallajökull 2010 eruption (about 30 km to the south of this image). Years after the Eyjafjallajökull eruption, the volcano still burns hot and its lighter ashes are still blown over southern Iceland providing this magical colors over the entire region.

Daniel’s adventures in Iceland didn’t stop at simply photographing stunning volcanic landscapes. He also had the privilege to see the inside of one of the volcanoes in the Eastern Volcanic Zone close up. Watch his descent into the Thrihnukagigur volcanic conduit over on his blog, Retos Terrícolas.