U.S. Ice Core Scientists Decide To Go It Alone

WASHINGTON—Scientists from all over the world are traveling to the earth’s coldest places to do what might turn out to be the decade’s hottest research. Buried deep in Greenland’s ice sheet may be answers to a problem—global warming—that threatens the entire planet. This problem has sparked much talk of international alliances among investigators. But in Greenland, United States scientists have split off from their European colleagues so that now there are tw

Oct 16, 1989
Elizabeth Pennisi

WASHINGTON—Scientists from all over the world are traveling to the earth’s coldest places to do what might turn out to be the decade’s hottest research. Buried deep in Greenland’s ice sheet may be answers to a problem—global warming—that threatens the entire planet. This problem has sparked much talk of international alliances among investigators. But in Greenland, United States scientists have split off from their European colleagues so that now there are two, not one, efforts to probe the ice.

U.S. officials admit that a joint project with the Europeans would be cheaper and, some experts contend, would benefit from valuable European expertise. But they say that the chance to call the shots is the best way for scientists in this country to carve out a name for themselves.

More than a decade ago the National Science Foundation sent a small international team to sample Greenland’s deepest ice. There they found evidence of what the world was like tens of thousands of years ago. That evidence was locked in the air trapped between frozen crystals, and smidgens of minerals scattered through the glacial whiteness. The work resulted in some of the best records of how the atmosphere has changed through time.

Ice coring was once an esoteric effort in an obscure science. But with politicians now hounding scientists for better clues about whom or what to blame for global wanning, ice coring has since taken on much greater prominence. Now everyone wants a piece of the ice. “We’ve got people tripping over each other to do this research,” says Herman Zimmerman, NSF program manager for polar earth sciences.

So NSF is back in the business of drilling deep ice cores, this time with a much bigger, more multidisciplinary project involving a dozen unversities. The effort is called the Greenland Ice Sheet Project Two (GISP2). The goal is to extract a 10,000-foot-long icicle - from the depths of the ice cap, in pieces eight to 20 feet long, and use it to learn more about the prehistoric climate of the Northern Hemisphere (see accompanying story).

Internationalism is a key word in global climate issues, and it’s been at the heart of previous ice core work. .But this time around, national interests have won out. As a result, 20 miles away from GISP2, the Europeans are running their own show—the Greenland Ice Core Program (GRIP)—and digging out their own core. “The way the GISP2 project evolved; the international aspect is much more on the informal side,” says NSF’s Zimmerman. “But I think it will probably become much more formal as time goes by.”

For now, though, GISP2 organizers have their hands full keeping U.S. scientists happy and productive. It’s a difficult task, given the complex nature of ice core drilling and the political history of the project. The new effort surpasses previous ice cores by a considerable margin. It involves three times the scientists, who will be measunng more properties. They will make 10 times the number of measurements per year of ice as before. Because the core is fatter (five inches in diameter as opposed to four) and the hole deeper, the drill needed to be bigger and the support operations conducted on a larger scale.

Super Bowl Solution

For much of the decade scientists tried unsuccessfully to ob- tain federal funding to do this work. In 1985, an advisory group came up with a plan for U.S. ice drilling, as did a committee of the National Academy of Sciences. A working group was created to oversee progress in getting projects under way.

But NSF got bogged down in questions about who was going to pay for GISP2 and how the ice would be divided up. Although NSF had footed most of the bill for the earlier Greenland project, dubbed GISP1, most of the scientists were from Europe. And NSF officials wanted young U.S. scientists to have a crack at deep ice.

“Several of us felt that it was important to have a U.S. presence in ice core research, that we needed to make our community a bit more independent of the others,” recalls Kenneth C. Jezek, the new director of the Byrd Polar Research Center at Ohio State University. His former institute, the U.S. Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H., had pioneered ice core work daring the 1960s, but Danish scientists leaped ahead in drilling technology during the next two decades. For GISP2, some U.S. glaciologists wanted a drill that had “Made in the USA” stamped on it.

It also seemed that if scientists dug just one very deep hole, there just wouldn’t be enough ice to go around. “The original GISP was a joint effort between the U.S., Switzerland, and Denmark,” recalls Willis Dansgaard, the geophysicist from the University of Copenhagen who took part in that pioneering work. It arose as an international endeavor because the few scientists then interested in ice cores hailed from all over the globe. “The idea was to continue this, but before it was realized, a great interest arose on both sides of the Atlantic,” he adds.

Frustrated by the apparent impasse, a few senior statesmen in the field of glaciology got together one cold January day in 1987 to try and solve the problem. While the New York Giants hammered the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, Wally Broecker of the Lamont-Doherty Geological Observatory, Dansgaard, Hans Oeschger of the University of Bern in Switzerland, and a few others hammered out a plan for two cores. Because the solution would double the cost of the research, each side agreed to pay for its own project. The approach allowed each side to retain control over the ice coming from its hole.

“It just swept away all the problems,” Broecker recalls about the two-core compromise. “All we had to do then was convince our governments.” With the support of potential participants, the group managed to sell the plan to NSF officials. “All in all, it’s worked out veiy well,” adds Broecker.

Maybe for some, but not for others. Once the plan was accepted and funding approved, NSF quickly solicited proposals and convened a four-person panel to sift through and select the lucky dozen from among the 40 or so applicants. The winners constituted a new team of deep ice core workers. Only one of the six scientists who wrote the original Greenland research plan was included; the rest of the 16 investigators on GISP2 are relative newcomers to deep drilling work. The project will be coordinated by Paul Mayewski and the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans, and Space at the University of New Hampshire, which has been con- tracted by NSF to be the project’s scientific management office. Even the drilling contract has changed hands, moving after 12 years from the University of Nebraska to the University of Alaska in Fairbanks.

“This is definitely not an 'old boys’ type of operation,” says Mayewski. “There are new names.” Even Jezek, who helped outline the need for the project, got passed over; his work- in physical characteristics seemed less crucial than ice chemistry. Also lost in the shuffle was Ellen Mosley-Thompson, a scientist at Ohio State’s Byrd Polar Research Center who has been on many ice coring projects throughout the world and who spearheaded the effort to get GISP2 off the ground.

For Chester Langway, Jr., who helped assemble the original ice coring triumvirate that included Dansgaard and Oeschger but has since moved on to other projects, the fun is gone. “It’s not that I am not interested,” says Langway, a professor at the State University of New York in Buffalo. “But now it’s so big, and big science is like big business. I didn’t want to get enmeshed in all this stuff.”

The new group also lacks the prominence of their European counterparts, who have in recent years dominated the scientific literature. Says Dick Cameron, associate professor of physical sciences at Harris- Stowe State College in St. Louis and glaciology program manager at NSF from 1973 until 1984: “It would have been best to work hand in hand with the Europeans. The Danes already have a drill; the Swiss have a beautiful device to split the core. They are a winning team.”

So far, though, the informal collaboration seems to be working out just fine. Both groups spent three months last summer building their base camps and testing their drills. When bad weather prevented planes from landing at the European drill site, the cargo was dropped off at the U.S. camp and ferried by snowmobile to the other camp. The Europeans joined the U.S. team for a July 4th barbecue. And Kendrick Taylor, a University of Nevada scientist in charge of -measuring elec troconductivity, learned from Claus Hammer, his European counterpart, a better design for using electrodes on fractured ice.

Going Deep

The decision to dig two cores and the predominance of new faces reflect the changing nature of ice core science. With GISPl, logistical costs outweighed science in the selection of the drill site. That $10 million project extracted ice from 2,000 meters deep at the easily accessible Distant Early Warning Radar Station in Greenland. But there the ice layers were thin and sometimes the surface ice melted, so the record of atmospheric carbon dioxide was imperfect.

Now NSF plans to spend $21 million over five years to dig even deeper, picking a spot that would be best from the scientists’ standpoint. When the GISP2 drill hits bedrock in 1994, the ice it penetrates will be 200,000 years old. It will extend the history recounted in the deepest core so far, the Soviet ice core at Vostok station, which reached back 160,000 years through 2,400 meters of Antarctic ice. With two holes, the scientists also will be able to assess whether changes they observe are related to climate or due to shifting of ice over time.

Current concern about global climate change will lead ice core investigators to concentrate less on the ice itself and more on air trapped in the ice, particularly the air’s composition. Unlike cores taken from deep- sea sediments, which lead to only indirect inferences about climate change, these bubbles are frozen time capsules. Scientists should be able to distinguish annual layers back about 7,000 years. “The realization that you are looking at atmosphere is really astounding,” says Zimmerman, who studied ocean cores for many years. Thus, at GISP2, research in crystallography and physical properties or ice will be curtailed to make room for atmospheric chemists. Adds Langway, “It’s more detailed information than tree rings or sea sediments over the time gap that we’re interested in.

The twin holes will permit each team to use the other’s core to verify that their findings reflect climate changes and not just aberrations in the ice. And the fact that good results should bolster the entire field of ice coring has meant that even the scientists who are shut out of this latest endeavor wish it well. Says Mosley-Thompson, “It’s very important for the entire [glaciological] community that GISP2 be successful.”