Skip directly to content

Prehistoric ice cores help predict future climate

The Antarctic ice sheet has yielded samples of snow and atmospheric gases from tens of thousands of years ago. Working with ice cores from the ice sheet, NSF-funded scientists and engineers are learning how naturally occurring changes in greenhouse gases previously altered climate.

This record of past changes in climate and atmospheric gases offers greater detail than earlier records of how gases exchanged between the atmosphere, ocean and plants control climate. The ice cores under study will help improve predictions of how human activity may alter Earth's current climate and sea level.

A combination of large amounts of clean snowfall and favorable glacial ice allow recovery of ancient ice that contains a record of greenhouse gases with unprecedented time resolution. For tens of thousands of years the snow, and the air in the snow, stacked up forming layers of ice. As successive layers build, the sheet becomes a climate time capsule. Within the ice cores the researchers can observe previously hidden interactions between greenhouse gases and climate.

The ice cores were recovered from the surface to a depth of over 3.2 kilometers (2 miles) using a specialized drill. The drill has an innovative feature that allows it to recover multiple parallel core samples from time intervals of high scientific interest without having to drill additional holes from the surface.

Researchers from South Dakota State University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison also contributed to these findings.


Images (1 of )

  • an ice core from the side of the main hole
  • a researcher with one of the ice cores
A drill holds an ice core recovered from the side of the main hole.
Kristina Dahnert, Ice Drilling Design and Operations
A scientist examines an ice core that contains samples of ancient snow and atmospheric gases.
Kendrick Taylor, Desert Research Institute

Recent Award Highlights

flood waters hit manhattan

Manhattan Seawall faces a tidal challenge

Surges from rising storm tides threaten seawall as a protective barrier

Research Areas: Earth & Environment Locations: Oregon
coal-fired power plant in new hampshire

Rivers as cooling towers for regional electricity

Computer models show interaction of power plants with climate, water and ecosystems

Research Areas: Earth & Environment, Biology Locations: New Hampshire