Earth’s Ice Records 

Earth’s ice cores preserve climate history of million of years. Most of the ice cores are taken from the ice deposited in Antarctica and Greenland. Some interesting facts…

Ice cores have been preserved in US National Ice Core Library (NICL) in Denver Colorado.

  1. Oldest ice core record kept there is 420000 years old.
  2. There are ice cores which have been collected and preserved from a single hole 3.6 kilometres.
  3. Total length of all the ice core samples preserved in the NICL is 20 kilometres.

How do these ice cores help in delineating the climate at that period of time. Dust and chemicals trapped inside the ice samples. Analysis of these chemicals and dust particles can delineate the climatic conditions prevalent in the different times in the past. Climatic histories upto 850000 years have been recreated.

How the age is determined??

Water like any other chemical contains normal oxygen 16 (16O) atoms as well as a very small fraction of  oxygen 18 (18O) atoms. Water evaporation is a function of temperature. At higher temperatures 18O water evaporates more along with 16O water which means when these vapors condense will be richer in 18O. From the ratios of amounts of 18O and 16O temperature can be deduced.

Similarly trapped CO2 inside the cores gives the CO2 levels at different times in the past.

Ice hides memories of past climate!!!!

Almost all the elements in the universe are composed of atom siblings though are chemically equivalent but have slightly different weight.

Every Atom is composed of equal number of electrons and protons to make it electrically neutral and stable. There are also neutrons which are electrically neutral but have weight almost equal to the proton.

Protons and neutrons reside in the centre of atom and called jointly nucleus. This is due to the different numbers of neutrons in these atoms. More the neutrons more shall be the weight of the isotope.

Oxygen has two prominent isotopes. The lighter one contains 8 neutrons and the heavier one contains 10 neutrons this is exactly 2 neutron heavier. The ratio of the heavier atoms to the lighter ones is 1:500 or 0.2%.

The number and ratio of the oxygen isotopes is constant if water was present at one place only. But the distribution changes due to physical and biological processes. These two phenomena fractionated the distribution. The oxygen atoms are labeled 18O and 16O.

Since heavier oxygen has lower tendency to evaporate than the lighter and higher tendency to precipitate, the distribution changes continuously with the movement and phase changes of the water.

Originally in the sea water there was a given ratio. Now suppose sun heats the sea and evaporation takes place initiating the water cycle. But notice, the ratio of heavier atoms to lighter atoms will change both is the sea water left behind as well as the vapours.

Sea water will become richer in heavier isotope and vapours poorer. Now these vapours rise and starts migrating towards the poles. Temperature gradually begins to fall triggering the precipitation but again further fractionation will take place.

In the beginning, some of the heavier atoms will precipitate thus further depleting the pole ward moving water vapours in heavier atoms. So when the snow will start falling, it will be containing the least numbers of heavier atoms.

The snow will settle down. Future years will bring more snow, thus snowflakes shall begin to compact at the lower layers. Snowflakes contain roughly 80% air. After compaction, the air will be expelled and finally will form having only about 20% air. Ultimately lowest layers shall become ice containing only 2% air or less. Layer upon layer will build.

The snow precipitated in the relatively warmer climates shall have more heavier oxygen than the snow precipitated in cooler climates.

This phenomena is used to measure the temperature at which a particular layer was deposited. This provides a tool for temperature records in the history of the earth.

For this purpose, scientists take out the continuous cylindrical cores of the ice and measure the abundance of heavier oxygen atoms relative to the lighter ones using ratio recording mass spectrometer and plot this against depth.

From the calibration curves with temperature, scientists are able to measure the temperature records.

Knowing the past climatic history of the earth can help in understanding the ice ages epochs, chemical and biological reactions and thus the abundance or otherwise of minerals like petroleum.

Thus the ice deposited over millions of years preserves the memories of the climate in the past. They have been able to recreate the 4 million years record of temperatures.

Carbon Dating

An element can exist in different forms which have same chemical properties but different atomic weights. They have same atomic mass because number of protons are identical but additional neutrons make then different in weight. Such atoms are called isotopes.

For example carbon which has 6 protons and 6 neutrons have an isotope which have 6 protons but 8 neutrons.  They are represented as C14 and C12. Addition of extra neutrons make them less stable and many of them are radioactive.

The rate at which a particular atom decays is independent of temperature, light or darkness. During decay the atom is trying to achieve state of minimum energy and produces atoms with lower atomic numbers and energy.

The rate of decay is expressed in terms of half life. For example a given weight of C14 atoms will become half in weight in 5600 years precisely.  Then the remaining mass will again take 5600 years to become 1/4 th and so on.

This property has many uses and one of the most popular one is carbon dating to determine the age of wood.

Vegetation absorbs CO2 and the same C14/C12 proportion is found in wood as in the atmosphere as long as the tree is alive. But, after a tree is felled it no longer absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere. Inside the dead wood, the C14 brothers slowly disappear, and are not replaced.

So, a piece of wood from a Pharaoh’s tomb contains a far lower C14/C12 proportion than a tree that has recently been felled.

This type of clock is particularly useful to archaeologists, and allows them to date wood between 200 and 20,000 years old.  The ratio of C14/C12 is measured using a ratio recording mass spectrometer.