Sunday, October 16, 2011

The Vostok, Antarctica Ice Cores

Sunday, October 16, 2011
1:21 P.M.

At first glance, Vostok, Antarctica, seems like one of the worst places on the planet to set up a permanent settlement. In many aspects, it is. It is the coldest place on Earth. It is the most isolated research station in Antarctica. It experiences a polar night of 130 days, with 80 days in pitch-black darkness. The air is ionized, it can get really windy, there is very little moisture in the air, and, being at 11,444 feet, getting sufficient Oxygen is a problem as well.

Not surprisingly, the few research scientists that live here have a tough life. While they are acclimatizing, they will experience headaches, earaches, nose bleeds, high blood pressure, vomiting, arthritis, joint/muscle pain, insomnia, perceived suffocation, reduced appetite, and weight loss ranging anywhere from 7-26 pounds.

Why would anybody want to create a settlement in this godforsaken land?

Vostok serves a few purposes, such as studying the magnetosphere and seeing how much ibuprofen it takes to stop a headache, but chief among these purposes is the studying of ice cores. The reason why Vostok is at such a high elevation is not because it is situated on high terrain; it is because there are thousands of meters of ice below it. In 1996, scientists drilled up an ice core 3623 meters deep before stopping, fearing they might contaminate a pristine underground lake below all of this ice. Scientists used the first 3345 meters of ice to study the changes in atmospheric composition for the past 436,000 years, and found some interesting results.

The first blue graph shows Carbon Dioxide concentrations, the red graph shows average temperature, the light green graph shows Methane Concentrations, and the light orange graphs show the relationship between O18, an isotope of Oxygen, and solar radiation. Looking at the graph, it seems like the most O18 appears when solar radiation is the highest. CO2 (Carbon Dioxide) and CH4 (Methane) are both greenhouse gasses, and you can see a strong correlation between them and the average temperature of the Earth.

Below is a graph of current CO2 concentrations, taken from the top of Mauna Loa, Hawaii.
The highest CO2 concentrations shown over the past 436,000 years are around 280-300 ppm. For September 2011, CO2 concentrations at Mauna Loa were 389 ppm. Vostok does not take current CO2 measurements.

Also, take a look at the CH4 concentrations from Mauna Loa.

Historical Methane values at Vostok reached slightly over 700 ppb at their peak, and now, they are 1800 ppb. Mauna Loa is a volcano, but scientists state that no measurable methane amounts come from the summit area.

Vostok, the little research station that could, has given us invaluable but alarming information. Sharp increases in temperature are correlated with sharp increases in greenhouse gasses. With CO2 and CH4 at all time highs, significant warming will occur. We are still figuring out the exact implications for specific areas, but as a whole, the earth is going to warm.

I hope to take an oceanography class centered around climatic extremes next quarter at the UW, and I'm sure I'll be learning a whole lot more about climate trends.

Thanks for reading! I have to get back to some research I'm actually assigned to do...

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