Rescuing the glacier memory of the Earth

Thick suits, crampon-clad winter boots, hats, and gloves replace the lab coat while working amid heavy snow. In the Bolivian Andes, 6300 meters (20,670 feet) above sea level, fifteen scientists from France, Bolivia, Russia, and Brazil, carefully drill the hard ice.

In the Illimani glacier, the guardian of La Paz, the storm rages, oxygen depletes. With their faces covered, the scientists manage to extract two cylinders, approximately 135 meters (450 feet) long. A priceless treasure that will allow humanity to travel back in time: the site preserves 18,000 years of environmental archives.

The arduous and dangerous task required several days of adaptation to the paramo in a camp base at 4500 meters (14,700 feet) above sea level. The Ice Memory crew needed several shifts, between May 22nd and June 18th, to climb to the glacier top –impossible to reach by helicopter.

Among the difficulties in transporting the samples, the main one is to prevent the ice cylinders from melting; they should not lose their structure. These ice cores carry information of the area’s climate, literally piling up in layers for millions of years during the glacier formation.

The scientists cut the ice cores in situ and carry them down the steep slopes in portable coolers on their backs. Finally, bring them in trucks to La Paz. “It’s crazy, sometimes you have to transport them at night so they don’t melt,” says chemist Ana Rita Cristiano. Finally, the precious samples from Mount Illimani are taken to the Laboratory of the Institute for Geosciences of the Environment in Grenoble, France.

A Library of the Earth’s History in Antarctica

Ice Memory is a spectacular project gathering dozens of ice-core specialists, chemists, and glaciologists from Brazil, Russia, Japan, China, the US, and various European countries. It is coordinated by the University of Grenoble Alpes Foundation, the French Institute for Research and Development, and the University of Venice. It involves various institutions from around the world, such as UNESCO and private companies. 

The goal is to create the first library of glacier cores extracted from different places threatened by global warming worldwide.

The vast blue Antarctic desert, in which temperatures range from -54 °C (-58 °F) in summer to -84 °C (-119 °F) in winter, offers the ideal environment to preserve Earth’s climate memento. This library will allow generations of scientists to reconstruct global scenarios of the Earth’s atmosphere evolution.

In the first stage, Ice Memory collaboration plan to take one of the cores from the Illimani by ferry to Antarctica and two others obtained in 2016 from the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps. 

It is a race against time: glaciologists observe a dramatic loss of glacier ice due to climate change. Scientists estimate that glaciers in the Alps below 3500 meters (11,482 feet) and the Andes below 4500 meters (14,764 feet) will disappear entirely by the end of the twenty-first century. A disturbing projection propelling Ice Memory emergency plan to rescue samples of the invaluable frozen heritage.

Glaciers preserve the information on the evolutions of rainfalls, forest fires, and gas emissions from artificial and natural sources. A narrative of the past and present of atmospheric composition is engraved in water molecules, impurities, organic compounds, and greenhouse gases dissolved in ice.

The Earth’s ice history will be lost forever if samples are not rescued on time.

Original work published in Spanish:

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