State of the Planet

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Science and Heritage: The Ice Memory Foundation’s Mission for the Planet

A group of scientists from Ice Memory’s Svalbard operation working with an ice core drill. (Riccardo Selvatico/Media Stock)

Founded in 2021 by partners at seven French, Italian and Swiss universities, the international Ice Memory Foundation (IMF) collects ice cores from retreating glaciers. As its name suggests, members believe that ice records contain not just scientific data, but cultural significance. 

Anne-Catherine Ohlman, director of the IMF and a research director at France’s University of Grenoble, explained the importance of ice cores in an interview with GlacierHub. “What we value is the particles, the air bubbles, and all the scientific information that are [in] the glaciers. This scientific information helps us to understand different areas: climate, environment, historical information; many things,” she said. 

Layers of ice provide clues about past environmental conditions. When snow settles on the surface of the earth, particles such as pollen, ash and dust can become encased under fresh snow deposits, later serving to record conditions at the moment of their deposition. As pressure causes the snow to compact, air pockets are preserved in the resulting ice. From these bubbles, scientists can pull accurate representations of the planet’s past atmosphere. 

Both mechanical and thermal drills help scientists retrieve cores. In warmer climates, heated rings on the tube of a thermal drill aid in the extraction of the core. In colder climates, where thermal drills may not produce enough heat, mechanical drills are equipped with blades that send rotating pipes into the ice.  

By drilling and preserving these cores, scientists can access all sorts of records, from greenhouse-gas concentrations to changes in temperature, and even 15,000 year old microbes. The data can be used to generate insights on recent human environmental impacts, or longer-term processes like Earth’s orbital movements, which influence Earth’s climate.  

“We have a bunch of modern observations about how glaciers and climate are responding now,” said Allie Balter-Kennedy, a postdoctoral scholar at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “But that really only gives us kind of a snapshot of the present. And with all of these paleoclimate records, [they] allow us to kind of look back in time and at different parts of the climate system and kind of get a fuller picture of how the earth’s climate system works.” 

Ice cores are valuable resources that can help society make informed decisions about our future, especially regarding climate change. However, with the world’s glaciers melting at unprecedented rates, opportunities to take ice cores are disappearing with them.  

By drilling for two cores at each site—a “reference” core for current scientific efforts and a “heritage” core to be stored for future research—the IMF hopes to preserve valuable data for scientists years from today, when advanced technology may be able to reveal far more. With the help of international science institutions and philanthropic partners, the foundation has funded numerous drilling projects, including throughout the Andes and Alps, and has plans to drill in the Himalayas and elsewhere. 

Although the IMF was founded by Europeans, its governance includes a diversity of individuals from Europe, China and the United States. Many members of a separate organization, the International Partnerships in Ice Core Science, have also offered support, with various countries including Russia, Japan and Brazil contributing to specific operations.  

Safeguarding fair and sustainable access to these ice cores is an important value for the foundation; a statement on their website says, “Heritage should be owned by humanity, not by a nation, individual or organization.” 

Previously retrieved cores are currently being stored at the Institute of Polar Sciences facilities near Venice, but the IMF has planned for the heritage cores to be transported to a dedicated snow cave at Concordia Station, a remote site on the Antarctic Plateau. The facility is jointly operated by the French Polar Institute and the National Antarctic Research Program of Italy. The cores will be accessible to more than 55 nations through the Antarctic Treaty Agreement, which is overseen by the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat. The repository is scheduled to begin operation in 2024-2025. 

The IMF acknowledges the logistical difficulties of transport and access to the facility, but maintains that the remote location is an essential and strategic choice. Using compacted snow and carefully designed infrastructure, the snow cave will provide a naturally  minus 50 degrees C storage facility for the cores, protecting them from any potential disturbances to their refrigeration such as technical problems or economic crises. The remoteness and strictly controlled logistics will also allow the repository to provide access based on scientific criteria, rather than geopolitical interests.  

As a part of their commitment to long-term governance, the IMF plans for the foundation to be transferred to an international organization in 20 years. The process will be supported by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization executive board and the Antarctic Treaty.

Patrick Ginot, a scientist from Ice Memory’s Illimani operation, looking at a piece of Bolivian ice core. (Sarah Del Ben/Aster Production/Media Stock)

As the IMF’s name suggests, these glacial archives contain a wealth of knowledge about not just the natural world, but human history. By recording past stories, they may act as a bridge between science and society.

For example, in a 2018 study conducted on Greenland ice cores, scientists discovered fluctuations in lead and copper contents over the last 3,000 years. These fluctuations, when compared with Roman history, suggest shifting periods of economic growth or contraction in ancient Rome. Low levels of lead production appear to have occurred during the wars and political unrest toward the end of the Roman Republic.

A 2019 study argues that the Little Ice Age was partially triggered by the deaths of more than 56 million Indigenous people after North America was colonized by Europeans. The study asserts that previously cultivated land was abandoned and reforested, resulting in a significant reduction of carbon in the atmosphere. Ice cores may even record the COVID-19 pandemic. When much of world commerce stopped, so did transportation systems from road travel to aviation, producing fewer pollutants. The effects of these changes may be visible in the ice of the future. 

Regardless of whether one values the science or the heritage, ice cores are a potential keystone to understanding our world. As glaciers continue to melt, the IMF continues to work towards its mission. Its members believe that protecting the information within ice cores is an essential task for the global community. 

Olivia Black is a staff writer at GlacierHub and an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, majoring in environmental studies with a focus on human-environmental relationships.  

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