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In search of Earth’s oldest ice: Hobart plays host to international ice core scientists

The search for the world’s oldest ice core – likely to be a million years or older – will be among the key topics for a major meeting of climate scientists in Hobart this week.

The International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences (IPICS) Second Open Science Conference will bring more than 200 scientists and drilling experts from 22 countries to Tasmania for a week of scientific presentations and planning discussions .

The conference is co-hosted by the Australian Antarctic Division and the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre.

Conference Chair, Dr Tas van Ommen, said IPICS is the principal international planning group for international ice core science.

“This forum brings together the world’s top experts in ice core science and drilling technology for a week of scientific presentations and planning discussions,” Dr van Ommen said.

“Ice cores are immensely important to climate science but the logistical and technical challenges of drilling ice cores are enormous, and require extraordinary levels of cooperation between nations.”

“The role of this forum is to ensure national programs can work effectively together in support of high-priority international science goals.”

Director of the Australian Antarctic Division, Dr Nick Gales, said Australia was a founding member of IPICS and welcomed the opportunity to host delegates during the week-long conference.

“Australia has a long history in ice core science, going back to borehole studies in Antarctica in the 1960s and it remains a priority of the Australian Antarctic programme,” Dr Gales said.

“We have long recognised the importance of collaboration and shared drilling technology, personnel and equipment, laboratory analysis and techniques with many nations over many years.”

Million Year Ice Core
Dr van Ommen said one of the major priorities for the conference was progress toward finding and drilling the world’s oldest ice.

“Our understanding of the Earth’s future climate relies on understanding the forces that have shaped its past,” Dr van Ommen said.

“Ice cores are an immensely valuable archive of information about how the Earth’s climate has changed in response to drivers such as greenhouse gases, volcanic eruptions and solar activity.”

“The million year ice core is a holy grail for climate science, and Australia is part of a major international effort aimed at finding and drilling the oldest ice.

“The oldest ice core retrieved from Antarctica to date is about 800 000 years old, which falls just short of a major shift in global ice age cycles that occurred about a million years ago.

“We think that million year-old ice exists deep within the Antarctic icecap, and if we can recover it then we can start to piece together exactly what caused this fundamental change in climate cycles.”

New Tech: Rapid Access
Dr van Ommen said there was considerable optimism about the potential for new and emerging technologies to improve the efficiency of ice core drilling projects and that there would be a key focus of the conference.

“Antarctic ice cores can be well over three kilometres deep and hundreds of kilometres away from any permanent base, which tends to make ice core drilling costly and time consuming,” he said.

“There is quite a bit of excitement at the conference about the potential for new rapid access drilling technology, which can penetrate several kilometres of ice in just days or weeks.

“A rapid access drill has been deployed in Antarctica by the United States this summer, and we are looking forward to hearing about the first results.”

Aurora Basin North: First Results
Dr van Ommen said the first scientific results from a major Australian-led drilling project in 2013-14 conducted 550km inland of Casey research station will also be presented at the conference.

“We are tremendously pleased to see the first results of the Aurora Basin North project, which was a major collaboration between Australian, French, Danish, American and other international partners,” he said.

“The project is part of broader international efforts to improve our understanding of how the climate has varied naturally over the past 2000 years in the lead up to the current era.

“The Aurora Basin Project is providing new results for a large sector of Antarctica where no data was previously available.”

The Conference will be held at the C3 Convention Centre in South Hobart and will run until Friday, 11 March.
David Reilly

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