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Dartmouth Joins the Search for Earth's Oldest Ice with New NSF-Funded Center

Sep 21, 2021   |   by Julie Bonette

Dartmouth Engineering has been named a collaborator on a new National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded effort to locate Antarctica's oldest ice and learn more about how the Earth's climate has changed throughout history.

The Center for Oldest Ice Exploration (COLDEX), will be created under a five-year, $25 million Science and Technology Center award. The center, led by a team at Oregon State University (OSU), will bring together experts from across the US, including Dartmouth Engineering professor Mary Albert, to advance efforts to address climate change and its impacts.

Currently, the oldest continuous record of Antarctic ice — collected by drilling miles down from the continent's surface — goes back approximately 800,000 years. The researchers hope to increase that continuous record to at least 1.5 million years. COLDEX collaborators also hope to locate much older ice, perhaps up to 3 million years old and even older, that may be trapped in the mountains around Antarctica.

"What we're after is to see how the Earth behaves when it is warmer than it has been in the last 1 million years. In order to do that, we have to find and collect ice cores that go back that far. Drilling ice cores is super hard, very expensive and can take years of planning. We'll be doing a lot of modeling and also developing new tools to help us pinpoint the best locations to search."

Ed Brook, OSU paleoclimatologist & COLDEX PI

Professor Mary Albert conducts permeability measurements on a firn core in the field in Antarctica.

"Many of the nation's leading universities in ice core science are involved in COLDEX," said Albert, who is also Executive Director of the US Ice Drilling Program (IDP). "The NSF-funded Ice Drilling Program led by Dartmouth is the nation's premier ice core drilling engineering enterprise; with years of experience drilling ice cores both in the Arctic and the Antarctic, we are happy to have the COLDEX drilling in our portfolio of ice coring projects for the coming decade."

As part of the COLDEX funding, IDP will hold "School of Ice" sessions to provide faculty from minority-serving institutions across the country the opportunity to expand their knowledge of Earth's climate record through analysis of ice core records collected by IDP.

In addition to Albert, Dartmouth Engineering's COLDEX involvement will be supported by Louise Huffman, Education Program Manager, and Blaise Stephanus, Program Manager; in addition, several Dartmouth Engineering undergraduates will assist with "School of Ice" activities.

COLDEX is one of six new NSF Science and Technology Centers (STCs). NSF currently supports 12 centers, with the last group funded in 2016. The objective of the program, established in 1987, is to support transformative, complex research programs in fundamental areas of science that require large-scale, long-term funding.

University partners on the project include: Amherst College; Brown University; Princeton University; University of California, Berkeley; UC Irvine; UC San Diego; the University of Kansas; University of Maine; University of Minnesota, Duluth; University of Minnesota, Twin Cities; University of Texas; and the University of Washington. Additional COLDEX partners include the American Meteorological Society, Inspiring Girls Expeditions, the Earth Science Women's Network, and the Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program.

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