Hard Core History

Originally published for 5280‘s 2020 March Issue

The National Science Foundation Ice Core Facility holds records so old, they make those at the Library of Congress, the University of Cambridge, and the Vatican Apostolic Archive seem like new releases. Instead of manuscripts, though, the “documents” at this U.S. Geological Survey–managed warehouse in Lakewood, the only one of its kind in the country, are archaic pieces of frozen matter.

Scientists drill the samples, called ice cores, from deep within glaciers and ship them to this facility, where they’re stored in meter-long chunks at minus 36 degrees Celsius. (The suburb is convenient because it’s near a major airport and the low humidity here minimizes pesky frost buildup.) Preserved within the cores are accounts of Earth’s climate from long before humans were around to record data. 

The chilly ledgers exist thanks to the way glaciers form: New snowfall lands atop old, compressing over time into striated ice formations. “Just about anything that went into the atmosphere is recorded in the ice,” says Geoffrey Hargreaves, head curator at the facility—meaning researchers can glean past concentrations of greenhouse gases and better guide policies such as the Paris Agreement. 

Read the rest on 5280.com

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