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Scientists Go to Coldest Place on Earth to Store Ice Cores for Future Generations to Study

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By Alex Kirby

An ambitious scientific expedition is due to start work on May 22 on Bolivia's second-highest mountain, Illimani. The researchers plan to drill three ice cores from the Illimani glacier, and to store two of them in Antarctica as the start of the world's first ice archive.


The Ice Memory expedition, with members from Bolivia, Brazil, France and Russia, aims to collect ice cores from glaciers most at risk from climate change and to store them safely for future generations of scientists to study the climatic and environmental records they contain.

Bolivia's glaciers, in common with those across much of the world, are in serious trouble, so this is a natural destination for glaciologists. And the choice of Antarctica for storage is doubly inspired.

Storage in Antarctica

Not only is the continent home to the coldest place on Earth, and therefore physically promising, the Antarctic Treaty System also offers a unique degree of political protection, setting aside the continent as a scientific preserve, establishing freedom of scientific investigation and dedicating it for use exclusively for peaceful purposes.

This Andean expedition is Ice Memory's second quest for relevant cores to preserve; it sent a team to drill in the Mont Blanc massif in the French Alps in August 2016. The Bolivian team is due to finish work on June 18.

The peak of Illimani stands above the Bolivian capital, La Paz, reaching to more than 6,400 m (21,000 feet). The glacier starts several thousand feet below the summit. It lies between the wet Amazon basin and the dry Altiplano. It is slow-flowing, 140m deep, and holds climate and environment data stretching back 18,000 years, for example on rainfall trends, forest fires and pollution from human sources.

Drilling on the glacier will be difficult and dangerous. The 15-strong expedition team has already been in Bolivia for several weeks so they can acclimatize to the low atmospheric pressure. Illimani's high altitude is one of the main difficulties they face, the other being how to get their equipment to the drilling site. As it is inaccessible by helicopter, everything has to be carried up on the backs of the group's Bolivian guides.

Ice Cores

Working in two teams, the researchers will drill down through the glacier to the bedrock to extract the three ice cores, each about 150m long. The cores will then be carried down at night to the base camp, transported by refrigerated truck to La Paz and stored there in a refrigerated container.

At the end of the drilling, the container will be taken by truck to the Chilean border and shipped to Le Havre in France for transport to the expedition's base in the southern French city of Grenoble. One core will be kept there for analysis, in order to identify chemical tracers available with current technology and to create a permanent database accessible to the whole scientific community.

The other two cores will be taken to Concordia, the Franco-Italian research station on the Antarctic plateau, some time around 2020, for long-term storage and to inaugurate the ice archive of glaciers threatened by global warming.

Ice Memory was established by French glaciologists and their Italian partners from IGE Grenoble, Institut des géosciences de l'environnement.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Climate News Network.

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