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TEDGlobal 2010

Lee Hotz: Inside an Antarctic time machine

July 14, 2010

Science columnist Lee Hotz describes a remarkable project at WAIS Divide, Antarctica, where a hardy team are drilling into ten-thousand-year-old ice to extract vital data on our changing climate.

Robert Lee Hotz - Journalist
Robert Lee Hotz is the science columnist for the Wall Street Journal, where he writes about cutting-edge research on climate change, cosmology, molecular medicine, the human brain and much more ... He has traveled three times to the South Pole. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Come with me to the bottom of the world,
00:15
Antarctica,
00:18
the highest, driest, windiest,
00:20
and yes, coldest region on Earth --
00:22
more arid than the Sahara
00:25
and, in parts, colder than Mars.
00:27
The ice of Antarctica glows
00:29
with a light so dazzling,
00:31
it blinds the unprotected eye.
00:33
Early explorers rubbed cocaine in their eyes
00:35
to kill the pain of it.
00:37
The weight of the ice is such that the entire continent
00:39
sags below sea level, beneath its weight.
00:42
Yet, the ice of Antarctica
00:45
is a calendar of climate change.
00:47
It records the annual rise and fall
00:49
of greenhouse gases and temperatures
00:51
going back before the onset of the last ice ages.
00:53
Nowhere on Earth
00:56
offers us such a perfect record.
00:58
And here, scientists are drilling
01:01
into the past of our planet
01:03
to find clues to the future
01:05
of climate change.
01:07
This past January,
01:09
I traveled to a place called WAIS Divide,
01:11
about 600 miles from the South Pole.
01:13
It is the best place on the planet, many say,
01:15
to study the history of climate change.
01:18
There, about 45 scientists from the University of Wisconsin,
01:20
the Desert Research Institute in Nevada and others
01:23
have been working to answer a central question
01:26
about global warming.
01:28
What is the exact relationship
01:30
between levels of greenhouse gases
01:32
and planetary temperatures?
01:35
It's urgent work. We know that temperatures are rising.
01:37
This past May was the warmest worldwide on record.
01:40
And we know that levels of greenhouse gases are rising too.
01:43
What we don't know
01:46
is the exact, precise, immediate
01:48
impact of these changes
01:50
on natural climate patterns --
01:52
winds, ocean currents,
01:54
precipitation rates, cloud formation,
01:56
things that bear on the health and well-being
01:59
of billions of people.
02:01
Their entire camp, every item of gear,
02:04
was ferried 885 miles
02:07
from McMurdo Station,
02:09
the main U.S. supply base
02:11
on the coast of Antarctica.
02:13
WAIS Divide itself though,
02:15
is a circle of tents in the snow.
02:17
In blizzard winds, the crew sling ropes between the tents
02:20
so that people can feel their way safely
02:23
to the nearest ice house
02:26
and to the nearest outhouse.
02:28
It snows so heavily there,
02:30
the installation was almost immediately buried.
02:32
Indeed, the researchers picked this site
02:34
because ice and snow accumulates here
02:37
10 times faster than anywhere else in Antarctica.
02:39
They have to dig themselves out every day.
02:42
It makes for an exotic
02:45
and chilly commute.
02:47
(Laughter)
02:49
But under the surface
02:51
is a hive of industrial activity
02:53
centered around an eight-million-dollar drill assembly.
02:56
Periodically, this drill, like a biopsy needle,
02:59
plunges thousands of feet deep into the ice
03:02
to extract a marrow of gases
03:05
and isotopes for analysis.
03:07
Ten times a day, they extract
03:10
the 10-foot long cylinder of compressed ice crystals
03:12
that contain the unsullied air and trace chemicals
03:14
laid down by snow,
03:17
season after season for thousands of years.
03:19
It's really a time machine.
03:24
At the peak of activity earlier this year,
03:26
the researchers lowered the drill
03:29
an extra hundred feet deeper into the ice every day
03:32
and another 365 years
03:35
deeper into the past.
03:37
Periodically, they remove
03:40
a cylinder of ice,
03:42
like gamekeepers popping a spent shotgun shell
03:44
from the barrel of a drill.
03:46
They inspect it, they check it for cracks,
03:50
for drill damage, for spalls, for chips.
03:52
More importantly,
03:56
they prepare it for inspection and analysis
03:58
by 27 independent laboratories
04:00
in the United States and Europe,
04:02
who will examine it for 40 different trace chemicals
04:04
related to climate,
04:06
some in parts per quadrillion.
04:08
Yes, I said that with a Q, quadrillion.
04:11
They cut the cylinders up into three-foot sections
04:14
for easier handling and shipment
04:16
back to these labs,
04:18
some 8,000 miles from the drill site.
04:20
Each cylinder
04:23
is a parfait of time.
04:25
This ice formed as snow
04:28
15,800 years ago,
04:31
when our ancestors were daubing themselves with paint
04:34
and considering the radical new technology
04:37
of the alphabet.
04:40
Bathed in polarized light
04:43
and cut in cross-section,
04:45
this ancient ice reveals itself
04:47
as a mosaic of colors,
04:49
each one showing how conditions at depth in the ice
04:51
have affected this material
04:54
at depths where pressures can reach
04:57
a ton per square inch.
05:00
Every year, it begins with a snowflake,
05:03
and by digging into fresh snow,
05:06
we can see how this process is ongoing today.
05:08
This wall of undisturbed snow,
05:11
back-lit by sunlight,
05:13
shows the striations of winter and summer snow,
05:15
layer upon layer.
05:18
Each storm scours the atmosphere,
05:22
washing out dust, soot,
05:25
trace chemicals,
05:28
and depositing them on the snow pack
05:30
year after year,
05:33
millennia after millennia,
05:35
creating a kind of periodic table of elements
05:37
that at this point
05:39
is more than 11,000 feet thick.
05:41
From this, we can detect an extraordinary number of things.
05:44
We can see the calcium
05:49
from the world's deserts,
05:51
soot from distant wildfires,
05:53
methane as an indicator of the strength of a Pacific monsoon,
05:55
all wafted on winds from warmer latitudes
05:58
to this remote and very cold place.
06:01
Most importantly,
06:04
these cylinders and this snow
06:06
trap air.
06:08
Each cylinder is about 10 percent ancient air,
06:10
a pristine time capsule
06:13
of greenhouse gases -- carbon dioxide,
06:15
methane, nitrous oxide --
06:17
all unchanged from the day that snow formed
06:19
and first fell.
06:22
And this is the object of their scrutiny.
06:24
But don't we already know
06:27
what we need to know about greenhouse gases?
06:29
Why do we need to study this anymore?
06:31
Don't we already know how they affect temperatures?
06:33
Don't we already know the consequences
06:35
of a changing climate on our settled civilization?
06:38
The truth is, we only know the outlines,
06:41
and what we don't completely understand,
06:44
we can't properly fix.
06:46
Indeed, we run the risk of making things worse.
06:48
Consider, the single most successful
06:51
international environmental effort of the 20th century,
06:54
the Montreal Protocol,
06:57
in which the nations of Earth banded together to protect the planet
06:59
from the harmful effects of ozone-destroying chemicals
07:02
used at that time
07:05
in air conditioners, refrigerators and other cooling devices.
07:07
We banned those chemicals,
07:10
and we replaced them, unknowingly,
07:13
with other substances
07:15
that, molecule per molecule,
07:17
are a hundred times more potent
07:19
as heat-trapping, greenhouse gases
07:21
than carbon dioxide.
07:23
This process requires
07:26
extraordinary precautions.
07:28
The scientists must insure
07:31
that the ice is not contaminated.
07:33
Moreover, in this 8,000-mile journey,
07:35
they have to insure this ice doesn't melt.
07:37
Imagine juggling a snowball across the tropics.
07:39
They have to, in fact,
07:43
make sure this ice never gets warmer
07:45
than about 20 degrees below zero,
07:47
otherwise, the key gases inside it will dissipate.
07:49
So, in the coldest place on Earth,
07:52
they work inside a refrigerator.
07:55
As they handle the ice, in fact,
07:58
they keep an extra pair of gloves warming in an oven,
08:00
so that, when their work gloves freeze
08:02
and their fingers stiffen,
08:04
they can don a fresh pair.
08:06
They work against the clock and against the thermometer.
08:08
So far, they've packed up
08:11
about 4,500 feet of ice cores
08:13
for shipment back to the United States.
08:17
This past season,
08:19
they manhandled them across the ice
08:21
to waiting aircraft.
08:23
The 109th Air National Guard
08:25
flew the most recent shipment of ice
08:28
back to the coast of Antarctica,
08:30
where it was boarded onto a freighter,
08:32
shipped across the tropics to California,
08:35
unloaded, put on a truck,
08:38
driven across the desert
08:40
to the National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colorado,
08:42
where, as we speak,
08:44
scientists are now slicing this material up
08:46
for samples, for analysis,
08:48
to be distributed
08:50
to the laboratories around the country
08:52
and in Europe.
08:54
Antarctica was this planet's
08:57
last empty quarter --
09:00
the blind spot
09:02
in our expanding vision of the world.
09:04
Early explorers
09:06
sailed off the edge of the map,
09:08
and they found a place
09:10
where the normal rules of time and temperature
09:12
seem suspended.
09:14
Here, the ice seems a living presence.
09:18
The wind that rubs against it
09:21
gives it voice.
09:23
It is a voice of experience.
09:26
It is a voice we should heed.
09:29
Thank you.
09:33
(Applause)
09:35

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Robert Lee Hotz - Journalist
Robert Lee Hotz is the science columnist for the Wall Street Journal, where he writes about cutting-edge research on climate change, cosmology, molecular medicine, the human brain and much more ... He has traveled three times to the South Pole.

Why you should listen

Robert Lee Hotz is the science columnist for the Wall Street Journal, where he explores the world of new research and its impact on society. In his column, he ranges broadly across the research horizon, from climate change, cosmology and molecular medicine, to evolution, neuroeconomics and new insights into the human brain. Hotz was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in 1986 for his coverage of genetic engineering issues, and again in 2004 for his coverage of the space shuttle Columbia accident. Mr. Hotz shared in The Los Angeles Times’ 1995 Pulitzer Prize for articles about the Northridge Earthquake.

Hotz is a director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which funds independent journalism projects around the world, and a distinguished writer in residence at New York University. He is the author of Designs on Life, Exploring the New Frontiers of Human Fertility, and a contributor to several books on research issues.

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