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The past in a (very large) icecube


Climate change is well established on the Antarctic peninsula, one of the most rapidly warming places on our planet. This is threatening ice sheets that have been stable for many thousands of years.

Antarctic ice coreAn ice core is an 'archive' of the climate of the planet going back hundreds of thousands of years. © Chad Naughton / National Science Foundation

The BBC today reported on the results, published by Nature, of an ice core retrieved by the British Antarctic Survey from James Ross Island, off the Antarctic peninsula. I have a personal interest in this 364-metre long piece of ice – which contains 50,000 years of climate history – as I worked with the scientists and technicians in the planning stage of this exciting project back in 2007.

Antarctica contains a fantastic ‘archive’ of past climates locked in the ice, going back many hundreds of thousands of years. Every year, snow falls on the continent. This is gradually compressed into layers of ice – rather like the rings of a tree. These layers contain small bubbles, which effectively contain the atmosphere that was present when that particular layer of snow fell. Scientists can analyse and date this gas to understand the atmospheric conditions, and therefore climate, going back hundreds of thousands of years.

Jon Taylor, our climate change programme manager, says “These findings are very important because they show that while climate variation is a natural process, the current rate of rapid warming is unprecedented. That’s why the UK government must implement our UK Climate Change Act (a world-leading piece of legislation that the UK Treasury is currently trying to ignore) with urgency and ambition, and must play a leading role in a global transition to a sustainable low-carbon future.”

You can read the full BBC article here. What most interested me was that the three experts interviewed by the BBC, including Dr Rob Mulvaney from BAS, all concurred that it’s highly unlikely that the recent rate of warming experienced on the Antarctic Peninsula is due to natural variability – the scientific opinion is that this is human-induced.

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