Rapid Natural Carbon Dioxide Jumps – and Goodbye!

This is my last post before the site shuts down!

On the one hand, I want to share with you the most recent and exciting work we could just publish in Science. It shows a new and surprisingly fast feature in the natural carbon cycle. Read more in the press release below and the many news platforms that have picked up the story.

On the other hand, I want to say goodbye and thanks for listening. It has been quite on this page for a long time. I went on to new endeavors and changed recently into the private sector. If you want to continue getting info about ice core science, I recommend “icy_pete” on instragram. We were in the field together and he does a great job showing you the beauty of ice core sciences.


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How to measure noble gases in ice cores

With the publication of our paper about how we measure noble gases in ice core samples, this very exciting project comes to an (preliminary) end. What a nice reward that we could provide the cover image for the journal “Rapid Communications in Mass Spectrometry” in which the paper is published. Thanks RCM!Share This:

Noble Gases from Ice Cores Published in “Nature”

This does not happen often in a scientific career: the world-famous scientific journal “Nature” has just published our work.

Our article “Mean global ocean temperatures during the last glacial transition” bases on a record of atmospheric noble gases from ice core samples. This data allows us to reconstruct past global ocean temperatures in an unique way and provides new insights into the temperature regulation mechanism of the global ocean. The topic has already been part in this previous post. Read the freely accessible Empa News article (German and English version) and the News and Views article in Nature for more details.Share This:

The Daily Work of a Polar Ice Core Driller – Video

Time flies, footage stays. A bit more than a year ago, I lived the life of an ice core driller in Antarctica. Here is the long-awaited ice core drilling video with some explanatory elements for everybody to share and learn, with great music of field mate Andy Menking.

All the best,

BernhardShare This:

The Ice Arrived!

Several months after drilling the ice cores on Taylor Glacier, they finally arrived at our lab. A moment to celebrate that nothing went wrong on the way, and before.

Arrival of the boxes with ice samples from Taylor Glacier at the lab.

Arrival of the boxes with ice samples from Taylor Glacier.

I have to admit, it was a pretty special moment when I drove to Zurich Airport that rainy late afternoon a few weeks ago to meet the ice core boxes I packed last December on McMurdo Station in Antarctica. So much work for a few tens of kilograms of ice and now it finally arrives at the lab… Good Times!

From the drill site on Taylor Glacier the ice was brought to McMurdo Station by Helicopter where it was stored in a first freezer. There, we prepared the boxes for their long journey in an on-board freezer of a ship from McMurdo to L.A., followed by a transportation with a freezer truck to the labs in the U.S.. Special care is required for this transportation as all could be lost by a gap of a few hours in the cold chain. As an example, one of the special safety measures is that always two freezer trucks are used for the delivery to the labs: One loaded with the boxes, the other one empty as backup in case the main truck breaks down. All of this is organized by the U.S. Antarctic Program and works perfectly. Thanks!

The ice that made it to Switzerland is part of a collaboration between the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and the University of Bern, for which reason our ice was brought to San Diego first. From there we had to organize the transportation by ourselves and had to work with carriers that are not used to handle such precious freight. It is always interesting to explain to a carrier that the freight does not have a “price” (which they need for their insurances), because this freight is just not buyable! Its effective price would be so high that no one would ever take the responsibility for the transportation. There is no other way to give a fictive price (way too low) and basically do the transportation without any insurance, a common way if you deal with shipping of research products.

Therefore, you take special care to minimize the risks during the transportation and we boiled it down to a fast transportation without cooling from San Diego via L.A. airport and Zurich airport to Bern within 28 hours. The boxes got loaded with cold packs such that they could stay cold for 48 hours without any external cooling. You probably understand now why it is a moment to celebrate when all the ice arrives as planned – still nice and cold – and you can place it in your freezer at the lab.

Happy Science!

BernhardShare This:

The World of Ice Core Sciences in Tasmania

The past week, ice core scientists from all over the world have met in Hobart, Tasmania, to share the latest results as well as ideas for future work. The ice core science expertise that came together for this second edition of the IPICS Open Science Conference is unique for which reason many colleagues call this conference the best in their field.

About 10 years ago the International Partnerships in Ice Core Sciences (IPICS) has formed and released a few white papers as a guide for future ice core research. In 2012, IPICS called for the first IPICS Open Science Conference in South France, which marked the first true international ice core meeting ever. The past week, all 18 member countries of IPICS sent their researchers again – this time to beautiful Hobart – for the second edition of this conference, which was again a very successful and fruitful one week conference with about 250 attendees.

Tas van Ommen from the host institute ACECRD opening the IPICS Open Science Conference 2016 in Hobart, Tasmania.

Tas van Ommen from the host institute ACECRD opening the IPICS Open Science Conference 2016 in Hobart, Tasmania.

The presented topics covered all fields of ice core research. Special sessions were hold for example about new insights from non-polar ice cores (from tropical and alpine regions), or where to find the oldest ice in Antarctica (expected to be as old as 1.5 million years old) as well as new results about ice flow of the large polar ice sheets (which is essential knowledge for future sea level change predictions based on ice sheet modeling). In total about 65 scientific talks were given and probably about 250 posters were presented, an ideal size for fruitful exchange.

Interesting progress in the search for the oldest ice in Antarctica could be presented and a couple of regions in east central Antarctica are now under closer investigation for possible drill sites for this prestigious project. Also a new approach to use trapped gas in ice cores to reconstruct past ocean temperatures gained some attraction. For the first time useful results from this kind of analysis of two different labs were presented, which seem to be able to deliver a lot of new insights into the energy budget of the climate system.

Besides the scientific topics, also the very recent announcements of strong cuts at the Australian Research Institute CSIRO were discussed. Many of our Australian ice core colleagues with whom collaborations have been undertaken over decades are now in danger to lose their jobs because political leaders in Australia believe climate science does not need observations anymore, but needs only research on climate mitigation. This political tendency away from observation oriented research towards research on climate mitigation is not only an Australian phenomenon. Unfortunately, this tendency forgets the fact that climate mitigation and observation is very strongly linked and only with the continuation of high quality observation, good mitigation is possible. There is the hope that the Australian government rethinks its plans during the ongoing hearings and they don’t waste the money they have invested over the last decades to build up the knowledge they now want to get rid of.Share This:

A Milestone in Physics

This is very off-topic, but for a physicist just a must to share. The world of fundamental physics just has changed, because it is proofed: Einstein’s general theory of relativity is true!

Einstein has brought up several theories that changed the way we look at the fundamental forces in the universe. One of his later – and probably the most fundamental – theories is the general theory of relativity. It describes the way how gravity works – that mass bends the spacetime. This is fundamentally different to the thinking of “the other way”, which would be that there is a gravitational force (like magnetism) pulling two masses together. Yes, strictly speaking, it is wrong to talk about the gravitational force from now on. You can say “today, the spacetime feels very straight” if you want to say that you feel very light-footed today – but that’s just for nerds 🙂 .

What does it mean for our daily lifes? Pretty much nothing, but it is exciting to see a 100 years old theory finally to be proofed. The most prominent impact of the general theory of relativity finds application in the GPS network. The positioning system would not be as precise as it is if the theory would be ignored (see this Ohio-State Page for more details).

A scientific perspective on this groundbreaking finding and how it has been proofed can be found in these Nature articles:



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Drilling Ice Cores – Time Lapse Video

On the Taylor Glacier we spent a lot of time drilling ice cores with the big Blue Ice Drill (BID). Here a little time lapse video of us drilling the top three meters of one of our many holes. Enjoy!


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Goodbye Taylor Glacier – Goodbye Antarctica

After three weeks of field work on Taylor Glacier, four of us left the field (incl. me) while eight are continuing until beginning of January. Here some impressions from an amazing time at an amazing place.

Spectacular Camp view

The spectacular scenery of our camp. Kitchen tent in blue, toilet tent in yellow.

Campt overview

Overview of our camp. The (really) small sleeping tents to the right, kitchen tent in blue, in the back our working area with the big science tent (laboratory) in yellow/grey and the storage tent in bright yellow.

Helo bringing fuel

A helicopter (helo) bringing fuel drums to our camp. All the logistic between McMurdo and our camp is done with helos. Even though we have seen tens of helos bringing and getting stuff, you never get sick of them. It’s amazing how precisely they can fly, even at strong winds.

Low-Tech ice core drilling at work.

Low-tech ice core drilling. We use this drill to explore the stratigraphy of the glacier at various places. This picture is taken at the glacier tongue where we found the oldest ice in Taylor Glacier so far (about 150’000 years old). It doesn’t look like, but it’s hard work, I tell you!

Sarah and Micheal with ice core

Happy glaciologists (Sarah and Micheal) holding an ice core section from 10 meters depth. This specific piece of ice has last seen the surface probably about 120’000 years ago (exact dating still work in progress), when it has fallen in form of snow about 150 km inland from where we are.

Helium balloon start

Another low-tech but efficient way to explore the stratigraphy of the glacier: helium balloon with camera. High resolution areal photos help us to better understand the folding of the ice.

Areal of balloon team

Areal photo of the exploration team.

Areal photo of melt channels

Areal photo of the melt channels at the glacier tongue – no, it’s not Mars!

Peter in the melt channel

On a day off, we find time to visit the spectacular melt channels of Taylor Glacier. Peter uses his crampon to stroll into the channel.

One of the mummified seals on Taylor Glacier, one of the mysteries of the dry valleys. They are several thousand years old and perfectly preserved in the dry and cold climate of the dry valleys. For some unknown reason, a seal made its way up the glacier and died. Ever since, it is perfectly conserved on the cold and dry glacier and slowly travels down the valley with the glacier flow. The theorie is that they wandered up glacier on the search of holes in the sea ice, not realizing that they go the wrong direction.

One of the mummified seals on Taylor Glacier, a mystery of the Dry Valleys. They are several thousand years old. For some unknown reason, this seal must have made its way up the glacier before he died on its journey. Ever since, it is perfectly conserved on the cold and dry glacier and slowly travels down the valley with the glacier flow. The theory is that the seal wandered up Ferrar glacier (which merges with Taylor Glacier) on the search of holes in the sea ice, not realizing that he is going the wrong direction… sad story.

Movie night at camp

Movie night in the camp. Sarah, Micheal, Kathy and Andy (front to back) enjoy the time after work inside the kitchen tent.

BID at work on Taylor Glacier

Our hungry Blue Ice Drill (BID) at work. Engineered specifically for the C14 work done at Taylor Glacier, this drill pulls out cores with 24 cm diameter. Each meter of core is 40 kg heavy and a pain to carry around. The good side? Lots of sample!

Cutting BIDs

The big BID cores hardly fit in a ice core box. That’s why we cut it right in the field. Peter and Vas (l.t.r.) are focused on making a straight cut – essential for good sampling and not so easy with a slippery, 40 kg heavy and round piece of ice.

Storing cores in the freezer

After cutting and bagging the ice, samples are stored in a freezer – yes, freezer! The strong Antarctic sun can melt the ice at the surface. We have to prevent this from happening. The colder the ice, the better the trapped gases in the ice is preserved for later analysis.


Bubbles in the ice

That’s what it is all about – the small bubbles in the ice which are air samples from the past. The composition of this air tells us a lot about the past climate.

The field lab melter in action

In the science tent Ed and Joe (front to back) melt small sticks cut from the big BID cores and run the melt water as well as the released gases through their sophisticated system. It’s pretty wild to build up such a lab for a couple of weeks at one of the most remote places on the planet, but it finally payed off.

Melter head close up

Close up of the melter head (golden piece) while melting an ice stick. The melt water-air mixture is sucked through the melter head into the system.

Filling the big melter

The other melter unit. In this big vacuum chamber almost one ton of ice can be melted at once. This pot is the main reason why we need the big BID cores.

Group photo

The complete field crew shorltly before we left the field (f.l.t.r.): Berni, Ed, Heidi, Peter, Vas, Andy, Jayred, Joe, Kathy, Sarah, Micheal, Andrew. It’s been a pleasure with you guys!

Reading Globi

… and THANK YOU READER for following this blog. It’s been a pleasure to give you insights in our work at the beautiful end of the world. “Globi und der Polarforscher” is surprisingly close to the reality, I have to admit :-).

To be continued…

Cheers, Berni

P.S.: Follow the Rochester blog for more reports directly from the field.

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Why we are interested in radiocarbon

The most spectacular work that is done on the field is probably melting every day 1 ton of ice in a huge vacuum chamber. Back in the lab, the released air from the ice will be analyzed for its radiocarbon content, which has fundamental implications for dating purposes and identification of sources of atmospheric carbon.

Picture of the melting chamber on the field

The big melting chamber on Taylor Glacier with a capacity to melt 1 ton of ice at once. Micheal is just taking care on the chamber during the melting process (see the flames underneath). [credit: Micheal Dyonisius, University of Rochester]

Radiocarbon, or C14, is a rare radioactive carbon isotope with a half-life time of 5730 years. Because carbon is found in almost all natural products, the activity of C14 in a material can be used to trace back the time when the carbon was built in that material. This basic concept lies behind the widely used C14 dating method (but works also with other radionuclides) und builds probably the most prominent dating technique for natural materials.

Not only dating is an application of C14, but also can we use it as an identifier of sources of atmospheric carbon at a specific point in time. In the application in our field work, C14 in methane (CH4) is measured and used to figure out whether the CH4 came from a recently formed archive (i.e. biosphere sources such as tropical and boreal wetlands) or an archive that has been sealed away from the atmosphere for very long time (i.e. carbon in the deep ocean and permafrost). For example, if C14 in CH4 drops during an event when the CH4 concentration is increasing, we know it must come from an “old” source, and vice versa.

Picture of filling the melting chamber

Vas and Micheal are filling up the melting chamber with one core piece just drilled near by. About 14 of these cores fit in the chamber. [credit: Micheal Dyonisius, University of Rochester]

One motivation to investigate this in the past is that the current human-made warming has potential to destabilize some old sources such as permafrost and clathrate hydrates and, hence, add to the release of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity. This so called positive feedback could have taken place in the past for example during the last glacial transition when the global climate changed from the last ice age to the current warm period. By identifying such events and their links to natural climate change, we can better asses by how much we have to take this effect into account for the current warming event.

The group from the University of Rochester around Vas Petrenko that leads this project (which is by the way also the flagship project of our field work), is the first group ever that analyses C14 of CH4 in trapped air in polar ice, and also managed to significantly improve the precision for C14 in CO2 and CO with their methodology. The reason for their significant step forward in the analytics lies in the large amount of ice/air from the same time period it can be taken from Taylor Glacier. At normal ice core drill sites the ice layering is horizontal and only a limited amount of ice is available for a certain time, whereas at Taylor Glacier the layering is vertical which allows accessing basically unlimited amount of ice from the same time period.

In a previous work done a couple of years ago, the team of Rochester could show that during a specific event about 12’000 years age, an “old” source was clearly active. In the current campaign they want to extend their C14 record on a much larger time span and also try to rule out an inherent problem to C14 in air from polar ice samples: production of C14 in the ice itself (in-situ production).

More details about the interesting work of the University of Rochester group can be obtained from their blog.Share This: