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Climate and Environment archives stored in Antarctica for future generations

About the project

While glaciers are melting under the effects of global warming, the international glaciology community mobilizes to preserve ice cores archives in Antarctica for future generations of scientists. We request your valuable contribution for the financial support of the second expedition of the project in Bolivia in Spring 2017.

“Dear colleagues and friends, for tomorrow or for future centuries, we offer you through time these few ice samples from Mont Blanc’s glacier. They still contain many secrets to discover. We place all our trust in you. Make good use of this precious material.”

This message was signed by a group of ten Franco-Italian scientists working on the “Ice Memory” mission when they achieved the first drilling operation at Col du Dôme glacier in the Mont Blanc massif in August 2016. During the two weeks they spent at 4,300 metres altitude, the group extracted three ice cores down to bedrock. Two cores consist of the very first samples that will be stored in the ice sanctuary of glaciers archives that may disappear under the effect of global warming.

Glacier shrinking is obvious. By the end of the 21st century, most of glaciers below 3,500 metres in the Alps and 5,400 metres in the Andes may disappear. At higher altitude, where glaciers survive and ice core studies usually occurred, surface melting water percolates through upper snow layers and unique pages of our environmental history are being destroyed for ever. Glaciologists will soon lose all good quality ice samples from high mountain regions, essential to understand our climate and key to anticipate future changes.

The “Ice Memory” project is planning a second ice core drilling operation in spring of 2017 at an altitude of 6,300 metres on the Illimani glacier in Bolivia. This site has been identified as the most reliable glacier in the Andes for glaciological studies but suffering the greatest danger from the effects of global warming for the next years. Actually, air temperature increase is expected to be most extreme in the tropical belt over 6,000 metres altitude, where the increase may reach +5.5°C by 2100 according to some climatic scenarios.

From previous studies and ice core analyses, according to rather limited annual snow accumulation and 145m ice thickness on this glacier, ice cores extracted from this Bolivian glacier allows to reach ice formed during the last maximum glaciation, i.e. to trace 18,000 years of climate and environment history in the Andes.

As this operation will take place at very high altitude, 6,300 metres, it will be a  complex and demanding scientific expedition. A team of 12 scientists from France, Bolivia, Russia and the United States, involved in such an operation, will be working in Bolivia for two months with the support of local guides and porters. Around one ton of equipment will have to be carried up and some four tons of ice (3 cores, 145m long each) carried down by human porters. The samples will first be transported from La Paz to the laboratory in Grenoble before being shipped over to Antarctica in 2020.

How will scientists from the next few centuries be able to use the ice samples rescued from being lost? What new ideas or fresh findings will drive progress in science and human ingenuity in the future? We simply do not know, but we are delivering our precious ice samples to a storage located on the south polar ice cap – an area designated by the Madrid Protocol as a “natural reserve” devoted to peace and science – so that climatology experts from future centuries will have the ice samples available to help advance science.

Over the next two decades, several ice cores will be drilled from around 20 endangered glaciers. Three cores will be extracted from each glacier: one will be meticulously analysed to build up a reference database using current available analytical technics; while the two others will be shipped to the high Antarctica ice cap where they will be stored in an ice cave at a constant temperature of about -54°C, aiming to be preserved for future centuries. Teams of glaciologists from all over the world will be taking part in this initiative and the European ice cores will soon be joined by other samples from the Andes, the Himalayas, the Rocky Mountains and elsewhere.

The snow deposited on the surface of glaciers contains important information on environmental and climate history. When snowflakes fall to the glacier, they capture impurities from the atmosphere and after when they compact under their own weight, they capture air bubbles. By analysing this ice, layer after layer, we can learn about the correlation between the earth’s climate and concentrations of greenhouse gases, we can find traces of heavy metals, acids, pollutants and gases, which all correspond to the composition of the atmosphere hundreds and thousands of years ago. In the near future, scientists may perhaps be able to unravel the secrets of virus mutations or bacteria trapped in the ice.

Requiring state-of-the-art equipment, scientists trained to work in high mountains, a rigorous cold chain stretching around the globe, and much more besides, the “Ice Memory” project is highly demanding in terms of expert skills and logistical organisation. Major French and Italian research institutes –University Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, IRD in France, CNR, and university Ca’Foscari in Italy– along with the Antarctica-based scientific organisations (IPEV and PNRA) are heavily involved in this initiative. However, as the project does not fit the usual patterns and procedures of academic research, it is being funded entirely from private and corporate philanthropy.

This extraordinary human and scientific adventure would not be possible without the support of private donors. It is a responsibility we all share, so let us join forces to leave behind a scientific legacy for future generation. Right now.

What are the funds for?

Your contribution will finalise the budget for the upcoming drilling operation in Bolivia, whose total amount is near to 500,000€. The first 10,000€ will be used to buy the technical domes for the drilling operations as well as tents for the 12 researchers who are going to stay 4 weeks on the glacier at 6,300m. Each ice core journey from Bolivia to France in June 2017 will cost 10,000€. It will consist of 150 cores of 1 meter long, packed in special isotherm boxes transported by boat. Each additional 10,000€ will allow to transport a second and third ice core.

About the project owner

The University Grenoble Alpes Foundation supports the ICE MEMORY project through private philanthropy. The project benefits from the operational contributions of majot scientific organisations: University Grenoble Alpes, french CNRS and IRD (Institut pour la Recherche et le Développement), including its team in La Paz Bolivia, University of Venice and Italian CNR, IPEV (Institut Polaire français Paul Emile Victor) and PNRA, its Italian partner, for the storage management in Antarctica.

Jérome Chappellaz (CNRS France) et Carlo Barbante (CNR Italy) are the founders of the project. Patrick Ginot (IRD) is leading the operations.Anne-Catherine Ohlmann (University Grenoble Alpes Foundation) coordinates the fundraising.

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