OSU scientists collect ice core samples from around the world to combat climate change

The shelves are filled with about 6 miles worth of ice cores from around the world. (WSYX/WTTE)

You can think of Doctors Lonnie and Ellen Thompson as librarians of a sort. Instead of books, their library is filled with ice core samples from across the planet that tell the story of earth's climate history, "They're just a treasure trove of information. The cores give us a glimpse of the past. They tell us how the system works today and allows us to make projections for the future."

In 2015 Dr. Lonnie Thompson led a team of international scientists to Tibet on a quest to drill the oldest piece of ice outside the polar regions to add to that library. "If you go to a place where no one has ever gone and you drill an ice core you're almost guaranteed you're going to find something new and exciting that no one has ever seen."

The team spent more than a month trekking through the frigid expanse, hauling up six tons of scientific equipment to the Guliya ice cap. "This is not for everyone- working at 20,000 feet. Very little oxygen. It's cold. It's windy." There they recovered a piece of ice as long as the Empire State building is tall, that tells a 600,000-year-old climate history.

Today you'll find part of that ancient ice core inside the freezers at Ohio State's Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, along with six miles worth of ice cores brought here from remote mountaintops in places like the Andes and the Himalaya. "The world is a bunch of windows that open and they shut and we try to jump through while they're open and get our samples out."

You see, the Thompsons are on a salvage mission to collect crucial climate records from glaciers that are melting away fast. "Time is definitely against us. Every day we're losing more and more time from the glaciers." The only problem is that they're out of space to store those ice core samples. "You can see how full we are."

The shelves inside the 35 degrees below freezer are stacked from floor to ceiling with 40 years worth of ice. "When we started we had no idea that the cold rooms would be as large as they are now but we also didn't realize how important to archive would be." Some of the cores inside the room are the only remaining pieces of ice from glaciers that have already vanished. "It's like having a patient with terminal cancer in the hospital and you know what the outcome will be, but it's very important to document that change as it's taking place."

The Thompsons hope that the ice cores they've already collected will allow them to examine how climate change has affected civilizations in the past. "We can look way back in time hundreds of years to thousands of years and see what the background chemistry of the atmosphere and nature of the earth's temperature was."

The cores will be used to link those past events with present-day climate change, in hopes of predicting the fate of our planet. "One of our missions is to keep these ice cores preserved for the next generations of scientists that will have very interesting questions. maybe even more important questions than we're asking."

Traveling into remote, sometimes hostile territory isn't always easy, but if anyone can put politics aside its scientists like the Thompsons who are on a mission for mother earth. "If we have a future it's in being able to break down these borders, these cultures so at least we understand that we're all human beings living on a planet with limited resources and if we are going to go forward we have to find a way to do it together."

More on the Ice Core Expansion Project: https://bpcrc.osu.edu/ice

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