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Thanks to global warming, we now need an ice library in Antarctica

Catch Team | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 7:51 IST

Global warming has perhaps never sent a bigger chill down the spine than now. We're at a point when scientists are working towards ways to store ice in the event of a complete meltdown. That's right. We're at that stage where we're scrambling to preserve ice - something you'd never imagine would be a "commodity", but is set to disappear, even as we twiddle our thumbs at climate conferences laying down policy after elaborate policy.

Project Ice Memory

Here's what is happening: starting August 15 and continuing through early September, a team of researchers will head to France to collect ice samples that will then be preserved at a facility in Antarctica. The whole initiative is part of what's being called the Protecting Ice Memory project - which was launched in 2015.

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The research team will comprise glaciologists and engineers from around the world and they'll be drilling 130-meter-long (427-ft) ice cores at the Col du Dôme in France. This mountain peaks at 4,300 m (14,108 ft) and is part of the Mont Blanc Massif in the French Alps near the border with Switzerland.

Snow cover is depleting so fast this bunch of researchers are trying to store ice for posterity in Antarctica!

The team will be collecting three cores from the expedition. One will be flown in a helicopter and then whisked, via 'cold-chain' transport, to the Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics (LGGE) in Grenoble, France. This core will be analyzed and the results will be featured in an ice database for future research.

The other two cores will be shipped and trucked to the French and Italian-run Concordia Research Station in Antarctica for storage. The station is run by the French Paul-Emile Victor Polar Institute (IPEV) and its Italian partner, the National Antarctic Research Programme (PNRA).

The Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (IRD), involved in the project, said in an official statement that, "the long-term plan is to have dozens of ice core archives stored in a snow cave at -54 ºC [-65 ºF] - the most reliable and natural freezer in the world."

Iceland Jokulsarlon glaciers and icebergs on lake lagoon with photographers on edge of Vatnajokull National Park in Southeast Iceland. (Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images)

The intrepid team effort will be coordinated by Patrick Ginot, a research engineer from the IRD working within the UGA-CNRS Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics (LGGE). He'll have the help of Jérôme Chappellaz, Director of Research at the CNRS, who will also be working within the same laboratory.

The need to preserve glacier ice

The idea for the project was born a couple of years back as scientists kept noting a steady rise in temperatures on several glaciers. According to reports, at every ten-year interval, the temperature near the glaciers on Mont Blanc in the Alps and Illimani in the Andes has risen between 1.5° and 2°. If the temperatures rise at this rate, the researchers say that glacier surfaces will see systematic melting in the near future.

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While it may not seem like a pressing concern, these glaciers serve as geological records of the times in which they had formed. Air bubbles trapped in between the ice contain atmospheric samples from the time the layer of ice was created. The analysis of the ice, and the air bubbles they contain, allows scientists to understand what the climate and atmosphere was like at different points in the planet's history.

The global research team, part of Protecting Ice Memory project, are preserving 3 ice cores from Mont Blanc

Now, these records are facing total oblivion.

"We are the only community of scientists working on climate to see a chunk of its archives disappearing. We urgently needed to build this heritage for the future, much like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault kept on the island of Spitsbergen," explained Chappellaz, the French project initiator.

"Our generation of scientists, which bears witness to global warming, has a particular responsibility to future generations. That is why we will be donating these ice samples from the world's most fragile glaciers to the scientific community of the decades and centuries to come, when these glaciers will have disappeared or lost their data quality," added Carlo Barbante, the Italian project initiator, in a release.

Walking on thin ice

All this might seem like a narrative built around fear-mongering to many, but that's living in complete denial of the reality of global warming.

View of the glacier terminus of the Lilliehook Glacier in Lilliehookfjorden, Svalbard, Norway. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/ LightRocket via Getty Images)

Just last month, analysts came out with reports that showed record-breaking shrinkage of Arctic sea ice cover. The total coverage in fact, during peak melting season is now 40 percent less than in the late 1970s. There's also drastically low snow cover in the Northern Hemisphere and premature seasonal melting of sea ice.

For the time being, scientists are relying on "the most reliable and natural freezer in the world" to help preserve ice. But, if the pace of depletion of snow cover and the degree of indifference to global warming continues, even the thin ice we're treading on won't exist anymore.

First published: 6 August 2016, 1:26 IST