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Why Scientists Are Shipping Ice From A Bolivian Glacier To Antarctica

By moving chunks of glaciers to Earth’s natural freezer, researchers hope to preserve the important local data trapped in the ice before climate change melts it away.

In May, a team of researchers will climb a mountain in Bolivia to begin the process of moving pieces of a Bolivian glacier to Antarctica.

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The glacier, on Mt. Illimani, can be used to reconstruct 18,000 years of climate records. But as temperatures have risen–particularly in the last El Niño–melting snow on the mountain is on the verge of destroying critical data in the top layer of the ice.

“We’re really close to losing the site,” says Patrick Ginot, one of the researchers leading the Protecting Ice Memory project, which launched in 2016 to begin to create the world’s first library of ice archives in Antartica. Future researchers will be able to visit the archive and extract data that scientists now don’t yet know how to study. “It’s really an emergency to extract the ice cores before another warm event will happen,” Ginot tells Co.Exist.

[Photo: © IRD/Patrick Ginot]

While global climate change can be studied from glaciers anywhere, each individual glacier also contains local and regional data. “If you want to extract the history of biomass burning in the Amazonian basin, you have to find a good site close to the Amazon basin,” Ginot says. “The Andes are the only place in the world where you can get that kind of information.” Illimani also contains unique data about the impact of pollution from the nearby city of La Paz.

In 2016, the Protecting Ice Memory project extracted samples from Col du Dôme on Mount Blanc in the Alps. The Bolivian expedition will be the second, and more complicated, phase of the project; unlike the Alps, the site in the Andes can’t be reached by helicopter–only by foot.

The Illimani glacier is nearly four miles above sea level, or more than 20,000 feet. Because of the high elevation, the team will spend a few weeks camping partway up the mountain to acclimatize. Then local porters will carry 4,500 pounds of equipment, including drills, tents, and food, to the summit. Installing everything will take another few weeks; drilling to extract each ice core will take two to four days.

“The idea of Ice Memory is to extract three cores, so you have to stay three times longer than a normal expedition,” Ginot says. “Then we’ll carry the samples down from the summit of the mountain by foot, down to the road, where they will be shipped to our freezer in La Paz.”

The three ice cores then will be transported in a freezer container back to France, where one will be studied. The other two will be put on a ship with the Alpine samples and sent to Antarctica, where a cave at the Concordia Research Station will act as a natural freezer.

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Even with climate change, the Antarctic site will be very cold for a very long time; the mean annual temperature at the site is –54 degrees Celsius (-65.2 degrees Fahrenheit). “If there’s a small warming of a few degrees, it will still be cold enough,” Ginot says. “It’s really the best natural storage for the long term . . .The logistics are complicated to bring it to South Antartica, but once it’s there, it’s safe.”

The researchers are now working with an international team to plan to save more ice cores from around the world, and intend to eventually build up a library of dozens of samples.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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