Lion's Eye Favorite: Students Learn About the Environment from 5,000-Year-Old Ice Sample
June 23, 2009
Up-close investigation of a piece of 5,000-year-old history is the stuff of dreams for most. But, that's just what 14 uppers and seniors did recently in "Chemistry of the Environment" class when Eric Kelsey – Ph.D. candidate at the University of New Hampshire – brought an ice core from Antarctica to the Phelps Science Center. Students stood inches away from the rare core, which UNH scientists had gathered from a depth of 191 yards beneath Newall Glacier's surface. They discussed the environmental meaning of the bubbles, striations, and markings visible in the ancient sample.
Kelsey, who studies at UNH's Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space, talked with the students for almost 2 hours. He related his experiences as a researcher with infectious enthusiasm – including his 3-week trip to Alaska's Denali National Park in May 2008, when he and a small team explored sites for an anticipated ice-drilling expedition.
He challenged students to think about why ice cores are important in the study of the environment. The class quizzed Kelsey about the atmospheric risks of ice research – sunburn from snow reflection being a large one during on-site expeditions – and how scientists use the data collected from ice cores to better understand climate change.
"How do you keep the equipment stable if glaciers are moving?" asked a boy focused on the auger and drill used to extract cores. Answer: glaciers move, on average, 2 feet per year, but in sudden spurts, not continuously.
"How do you dig down so far with just people?" queried a student as she observed a picture of Kelsey's team digging through many yards of snow to get to ice. Answer: you can't lug heavy equipment up the mountain, so you dig in layers and throw the snow back up to other team members as you go deeper.
"What did you eat?" asked another student as she looked at pictures of Denali National Park's peaks, which include North America's highest – the 20,320-foot Mount McKinley. Answer: Kelsey's team ate well, including fresh vegetables and pancakes.
When Kelsey opened the unassuming Igloo® ice chest containing the ice core, quiet fell. Inside the cooler: a 20-centimeter-long pillar of ice, approximately 10-centimeters in diameter, which had been drilled in 1988–89, and stored ever since at the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory in Colorado.
The core was lit from below so that students could observe more effectively. "How many layers do you count?" Kelsey asked. "4," was the tentative first answer. After a few more moments of observation, a more firm "12" came from the students.
The layers show the passage of time and seasonal development, Kelsey explained, with dark layers indicating wintertime snow and clear layers summertime snow. From the thickness of the layers, you can determine approximate snowfall – a key climate indicator. This core showed very little snowfall per season, Kelsey added, indicating that the area the core was taken from was "almost like a desert."
"There's a huge need to reach out to students at this level," Kelsey concluded. "I want to show them what science is all about – how it can be fun and interesting." He added, "I want to show them that simply having a passion and putting in the time" can lead to an engaging scientific career.
"The students were very interested," added Alison Hobbie, science instructor, who arranged the presentation with the Institute for the Study of Earth, Oceans and Space. "They are clearly curious about the science. They asked lots of questions about the extraction. They want to apply the science they already know and relate it to this new experience. I'm hopeful it gives them a better sense of what environmental scientists do, of the amount of effort that is spent in the process of planning, collecting and analyzing scientific data that is presented to the public."
Interested in learning more?
Read about Exeter's Science Department offerings…
Learn more about Exeter's sustainability program…
Learn about the U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory…
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Lion's note: this story originally appeared on May 12, 2009.