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Ice Ice Baby!

Photo: sea iceHappy new year bloggers! How are you all coping without eating your own bodyweight in mince pies every day? If you’re like us, you’re coping badly, especially if you have a cold. If you’re normal, you also probably didn’t pay that much attention to the news over the past couple of weeks. Lucky for you then that I am not normal and kept an eye on it for you.

The big science news over Christmas was that a project to drill down through 3km of ice to a lake in Antarctica which has been cut off for thousands of years had to be stopped due to equipment malfunctioning. Studying permafrost (parts of the world that have been frozen continuously for over 2 years – also through summer – this means at the poles or in high mountains) is incredibly rewarding and fascinating, but also fantastically difficult. Do you feel cold at the moment? Well spare a thought for our scientist friends who are currently battling temperatures of -25oC in Antarctica. At this temperature, water freezes pretty quickly, meaning that finding things to drink and water to use for experiments is hard, but also because water also freezes out of the air, it means that the air is dry, which means that you, your skin and your lungs get too dry, and despite it being so cold you get really dehydrated really really quickly. Combine that issue with all your equipment freezing shut, ice getting into the equipment and the simple fact that most machines don’t work when it gets too far below 0 degrees (next time it snows try going outside and using a smartphone) and you’ve got yourself a problem.

So if it’s so hard, why study permafrost? There are many reasons, firstly, the climate is changing, and we know that permafrost is melting, many animals (polar bears being one very obvious example) can only survive in very cold places, once the environment is gone, then animal will also go. Secondly, we know that ice holds many greenhouse gases within its structure (ie gases such as methane which drive climate change) and once the ice, known as the cryosphere, melts, these gases will be released. Thirdly, in high mountains, frozen water and soil acts as a sort of glue that holds everything together, and once this melts we see more and more natural disasters such as landslides. Finally, the more we know about how the cryosphere behaves, the more we can understand how it will behave when temperatures at the poles increases, and what we can do to help it.

That tells us why we study permafrost, so why were the British Antarctic Survey so interested in reaching a lake that has existed under ice for thousands of years? Well, they explain it for themselves on their website if you’re interested, but in summary, they want to know if anything is living there and they want to look at the sediments (i.e. the bits of mud that fall to the bottom of the lake) as these give a record of what the climate was up to when they were deposited and as we said above, the more we know about the past, the more we can work out about the present and infer about the future.

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Blog post by Linda Seward of Seward Technical Writing, providers of original science content.

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