It's finally happening―we have Antarctic ice! I spent the first part of last week up at the National Ice Core Lab (NICL) in Denver, Colorado to get the Yeung Lab's inaugural samples. There is ancient air trapped inside this ice, and we will be measuring its isotopic composition in the coming months. It's part of a pilot study that I hope will lead to a rich research program studying ancient air at Rice.
We were allocated a small number of samples to validate our methods, and I was encouraged to go up there to select and cut them myself. Why not? It's the closest I'll get to Antarctica in the forseeable future, and it gave me a chance to meet some of the people who make it all happen.
There are two main rooms in NICL's freezer: The front "warm" room, which is a toasty -24°C (-11°F), and the "cold" room, which is a chilly -35°C (-31°F). It is COLD back there. Your breath freezes as it passes over your face.
At the same time, there are decades of history. Literally thousands of 1-meter-long ice cores are back there. Each is held in its own tube, complete with site, project, and catalog number. The core curator, Geoff Hargreaves, gave me a tour, and even opened a tube containing rocks that were collected from the bottom of the GISP2 drilling project in Greenland, over 3 kilometers below the ice.
I also saw lots of old boxes strewn about, labeled with the names of giants in the field: Alley, Bender, Mayewski, and others. It was like walking on the trail they had set down. Their scientific contributions are part of the reason I am in this business in the first place.
All in all, it was a delightful experience. Core-cutting was perhaps simpler than I had imagined, given that Geoff and his interns did the brunt of the work.
We then packed the samples up in an insulated shipping container with some ice packs and sent them to Rice (priority overnight, of course). They have to stay below -20°C or so during this whole process, or else the gases will start leaking out. Geoff told me that the shipping containers are, at best, good for only 36-48 hours. Good thing we didn't have any delays! Here's to many more trips up to Denver in the coming years.