graph showing 150,000 years of CO2 data reaching a maximum of 280 ppm including several ice ages and Robert Mulvaney pointing to the invention of the steam engine and then the increase of CO2 up to 400ppm

Antarctic Ice Core and 800,000 year old atmosphere

As a result of the experiments that took place during the workshop at the British Antarctic Survey we explored different ways of representing increasing carbon dioxide levels from pre-industrial times and from up to 800,000 years ago which has been traced using Robert’s research drilling into the ice core at the Antarctica. Pockets of air in the ice contain atmosphere back 800,000 years… when the ice started to form, showing how temperature, methane and CO2 have changed throughout this unimaginable time period, over many ice ages, until the industrial revolution and the steam engine was invented (where Robert’s fingers are on the graph). Within this period temperature and CO2 have risen dramatically over many thousands of years changing the Earth’s climate. In each case CO2 has risen as the temperature rises.

Above Robert’s finger is the last 200 years since the commercial steam engine was invented, showing how CO2 has surpassed any previous level and risen at a faster rate than any other time in the last 800,000 years. He estimated it was rising at the same rate in 9 years as it would have over 2000 years in the past.

Lachlan and I were invited down to the lab and ice store room to see the preserved ice core. Robert gave us slithers of the ice from different time periods (12,000 years ago and 40,000 years ago!) and we watched and listened as they melted in our hands – he assured us that we weren’t melting any important evidence! As the ice melted the pockets of air trapped in the ice were released, making a strange popping and whining sound. You could feel and hear the air emerging into our modern climate. Robert told us that we are the last generation of humans (for the foreseeable future and beyond) that would have experienced the earth’s climate with CO2 in the atmosphere at the levels it has been for the last 800,000 years (below 400 ppm) and there is no way of really knowing what will happen now that we have passed this level as there is no evidence of what the earth might be like with this level of CO2 in the atmosphere. The Earth is only just beginning to change in response as it normally would take 1000s of years for the effects to come into play.

Robert is returning to the Antarctic in the next couple of weeks to see if he can find deeper ice to drill to travel further back in time and atmosphere, maybe an answer is hidden somewhere further down in the ice?

The Earth is our time machine.