News FocusPaleoclimatology

Climate Scientists Shine Light on Cave Ice

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Science  13 Aug 2010:
Vol. 329, Issue 5993, pp. 746-747
DOI: 10.1126/science.329.5993.746

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A small but growing number of researchers are investigating whether persistent ice that drapes the inside of some caves can reveal what the climate outside was once like. At a recent workshop in Austria, about 50 such scientists discussed this formidable challenge and reported tantalizing progress. By dating layers of cave ice that form from ponds of trapped rainwater and then analyzing the isotopes and other substances that make up those layers, these scientists aim to chart past changes in temperature, rainfall, and other climate indicators such as carbon dioxide levels. It's a strategy paleoclimatologists have long pursued with ice cores taken from glaciers and polar caps, or with layers of lake sediment, but cave ice has proven much more difficult to study and interpret. Every cave is unique in how water trickles in and freezes, and researchers have to go to great lengths to establish whether the ice layers they see represent annual, seasonal, or other time scales of deposition. But it's worth pursuing, researchers said at the Austrian workshop, as polar ice cores don't offer insight into the climate histories of temperate regions, where most people live.

  • Lucas Laursen is a writer based in Madrid.