Climatologist's Toolbox


But how do they get those cores from remote mountain tops and frigid continents? Easy. At mountain sites, they tap the sun. Using a special drill and 60 solar panels, Lonnie Thompson's team can generate enough energy -- 60 kilowatts -- to drill to bedrock. In polar regions, where the sun is more elusive, gasoline-powered drills are often used.
Fire and Ice
the drillAttempts to forecast future climate are notoriously difficult -- and controversial. But looking back in time is no walk in the park, either. Just ask Ellen Mosley-Thompson.

Mosley-Thompson, an Ohio State University professor of geography, travels to some of the most inaccessible places in the world to collect cores of ice that read like layer-cakes of atmospheric history. The job is laborious and difficult, but the frozen columns of ice have proved to be invaluable records of climate, volcanism and human influences on the atmosphere (defined).

"Ice cores are an excellent archive," says Mosley-Thompson, noting that in a few places in the world ice is more or less permanent and contains a precise, datable record of the chemical and physical properties of the atmosphere.

A research scientist at Ohio State's Byrd Polar Research Center, Mosley-Thompson collects ice cores from the ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland, while colleague Lonnie Thompson, a professor of geological sciences at Ohio State, collects cores from the mountainous ice fields of China and South America. From those cores, scientists can obtain intriguing records of:

  • Temperature
  • Atmospheric chemistry
  • Net ice accumulation
  • Dust in the atmosphere
  • Vegetative changes
  • Volcanic history
  • Anthropogenic (defined) emissions


Obtaining ice cores from different parts of the world helps explain the diverse parts of the complex climate system. For instance, slicing through ice cores obtained from the East Antarctic Plateau, Mosley-Thompson has obtained a fascinating history of volcanic eruptions. From those ice cores she has found traces of sulfuric acid (defined) from volcanic plumes and extracted microscopic "shards" of volcanic dust, some more than 20,000 years old. The volcanic signatures, she says, serve like bookmarks in the thin layers of ice that makeup the core samples.

But what do volcanoes have to do with climate? Excuse us...

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