Protecting the Ice Memory


The first mission of the project to protect the world’s heritage ice was launched in France on 15 August 2016. Researchers from CNRS, IRD and Université Grenoble Alpes will take ice cores from the Dôme collar in the Mont-Blanc massif to store them in Antarctica.

An international team of ten or so French, Italian, Russian and American glaciologists and engineers, coordinated by Patrick Ginot, an IRD research engineer from the glaciology and geophysics laboratory (LGGZ) at Université Grenoble Alpes and CNRS, and Jérôme Chappellaz, CNRS research director at the same laboratory, went to the Dôme collar at 4,300 m in the Mont-Blanc massif to take the first heritage ice cores. The aim is to create the world’s first library of ice archives extracted from glaciers threatened by global warming.

Three 130-metre long ice cores were removed and taken down to the valley by helicopter. They were then taken to the laboratory in Grenoble, in strict compliance with the cold chain. One of them will be analysed in 2019 to feed a database available to the entire world scientific community. The other two will be transported in 2020 by ship and tracked vehicles to the high plateaus of Antarctica to be stored at the Concordia research station, run in partnership by the French Paul Emile Victor Polar Institute (IPEV) and the Italian National Programme for Antarctic Research (PNRA). Eventually, dozens of heritage ice cores will be stored in a snow cave at -54 ºC, the most reliable and natural freezer in the world.

The Dôme collar glacier is the first stage in this major project initiated in 2015 by the LGGE, Ca' Foscari University of Venice (Italy) and the CNR (Italian national research council), under the direction of the Université Grenoble Alpes foundation. A second, longer and more complex mission, will take place in 2017 in the Bolivian Andes, on the Illimani glacier. Other countries are already candidates to join this project and protect their glaciers and those to which they have access: Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Brazil, the United States, Russia, China, Nepal, and Canada.

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Why build this archive now?

The idea of developing this project came about when scientists observed the rising temperatures of several glaciers. Over a ten-year interval, the temperature near the glaciers at the Dôme collar and at Illimani in the Andes rose by 1.5 to 2°. At the current rate, it is considered that their surfaces will undergo systematic melt episodes during summer within a few years or decades. With the melt and the percolation of melt water through the underlying layers of snow, unique pages in the history of our environment will disappear for good. “We are the only community of scientists working on the climate to watch a portion of our archives disappear. It is now urgent that we build this library of archives for the future, in the manner of the Svalbard Global Seed Vault”, explains Jérôme Chappellaz, the French initiator of the project. Despite its vital input to environmental and climate science, crucial when it comes to anticipating our future, glacier science will soon no longer have any quality raw material from mountain areas, due to global warming.

“Our generation of scientists, witnesses of global warming, has special responsibility with regard to future generations. This is why we are donating these samples of ice from the most fragile glaciers to the scientific community in the decades and centuries to come, when the glaciers will have disappeared or lost their data quality”, concludes Carlo Barbante, the Italian initiator of the project, director of the Institute for the Dynamics of Environmental Processes, CNR and Ca' Foscari University of Venice.

A strong scientific campaign and major sponsorship efforts

The IPEV, PNRA and the Université Grenoble Alpes community are partners of the scientific organisations that initiated the project: Université Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, IRD, CNR (Italy), Ca' Foscari University of Venice and the Université Grenoble Alpes foundation.

The project also contributes to the UNESCO International Hydrological Programme, as part of the IHPVIII (2014-2021) Thematic Area on snow, glaciers, water and water resources.

This project benefits from the skills and equipment of its French and Italian partner organisations and receives financial support from private sponsors. The Université Grenoble Alpes would like to thank the sponsors of this first mission, without whom the project could never have happened – Prince Albert 2 of Monaco Foundation, whose purpose is to protect the environment and to encourage sustainable development, Findus France, French manufacturer of frozen food, French glaciologist and ice coring pioneer Claude Lorius, Foundation of Petzl, French manufacturer of mountain equipment, GMM, French manufacturer of cable transportation systems, and Pressario, press agency.

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