It is a race against time that began two years ago in all four corners of the globe. Faced with the reality of climate change, a team of researchers led by Jérôme Chappellaz, glaciologist at the Institut de Géosciences de l’Environnement (IGE) in Grenoble and head of research at the CNRS, supported by the Université Grenoble Alpes Foundation, has undertaken to save ice memory through an international programme called “Ice Memory”. It aims is to take samples from glaciers threatened by global warming, and transport the samples to a natural cold chamber. This will allow future generations of scientists to research this unparalleled raw material. The Ice Memory programme is supported by numerous benefactors, including the BNP Paribas Foundation, and was the topic of an exclusive presentation at the BNP Paribas Foundation amphitheatre on 9 November, attended by Jérôme Chappellaz.
“It is an unprecedented project born of the desire to save the planet’s memory”, explains Jérôme Chappellaz. The journey began in August 2016 at 4,300 metres above sea level on the Mont Blanc massif.
One year later, the team has already collected new ice cores from the Illimani glacier in Bolivia, which stands at almost 6,300 metres above sea level.
It is an unprecedented project born of the desire to save the planet’s memory
The Ice Memory project’s ultimate goal is to collect samples from 15 to 20 locations all around the world, given that information varies from site to site.
Extraction is no easy feat: the ice cores extracted so far measure between 120 and 135 metres long, 10 centimetres in diameter, and weigh a total of three to four tonnes. To execute this particularly technical drilling operation, around 15 researchers, headed by Patrick Ginot of the French Research Institute for Development (IRD), journeyed to terrains whose weather conditions were challenging at best. Sometimes they were accompanied by some 60 guides and porters. Added to this impressive outfit is a tonne and a half of equipment for extracting these precious columns of ice whose visual purity Chappellaz describes as “incredible”. Some of these precious samples will be transferred to a global “core shack” located at the Concordia Antarctic base managed by the IPEV polar institute. There’s a good reason for this choice of location, as Chappellaz explains. “Edmonton in Canada used to have one of the biggest Canadian glacial archive bases in its cold chambers... until one of them failed and 15% of the archives were lost! We wanted to avoid such an eventuality by finding a place that could protect the samples naturally, especially since we don’t know what the next 20 years hold for the planet.”
Why go to all that trouble for columns of ice in the first place? Quite simply because they encapsulate a concentration of information: greenhouse gas, natural aerosols, anthropogenic pollutants, bacteria, etc., all of which can be read “like a story book”, says Chappellaz. The Illimani glacier holds 18,000 years of climatic and environmental history. In Antarctica, scientists can drill up to 4,000 metres deep to pull up close to 800,000 years of history. Without this “glaciotheque”, it is difficult to measure Man’s impact on climate change and still hope that it will one day diminish. As an example, Chappellaz confirms that “ice cores give us a clear before and after picture of the ban on leaded petrol.”
future generations will have developed new analysis tools and new approaches that they can apply to this raw material we will preserve for them.
Addressing climate change is not the only side of this multi-faceted project. Ice Memory is also pinning its hopes on future scientists who will have fresh ideas and more efficient tools for analysing humanity’s frozen legacy.
In 2016 Jean Jouzel, a glaciologist by training and the former vice-President of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), described the initiative as “astounding”: “future generations will have developed new analysis tools and new approaches that they can apply to this raw material we will preserve for them.”
Jérôme Chappellaz already has a few leads: “ice cores has information contain on bacteria, for instance, that is precious to the history of medicine. One day we may even be able to find traces of the black plague and study the evolution of the genome of the responsible bacteria.”
So far, the project has costed a total of two million euros for the two extraction expeditions, the researchers’ salaries and the first analyses. “It’s a relatively small price given how important the investment is”, says Chappellaz. “Especially when you look at how much money is being invested elsewhere to build new coal-fired plants in Australia, for example, which will create twice as many CO2 emissions as the gas equivalent!"
Thanks to additional financing expected from private and public enterprises, the Ice Memory programme should fulfil its mission to the Mount Elbrus glacier in the Russian Caucasus by summer 2018.