Apr 292011
 
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Ice Cores from Greenland Unlock Ancient Climate Secret

Climate science research often involves a little derring-do mixed in with a lot of tedium. Some scientists scramble up equatorial peaks to measure melting glaciers; others scour dry African lakebeds for sediment that reads like a talking science book.

For paleoclimatologist James White, adventures begin when a C-130 transport plane drops him and his team in the middle of Greenland’s ice cap. In conditions that redefine the word “cold” for this native Tennessean, White drills through ancient ice to unlock clues to the Earth’s past climate – and predict its future.

In between Greenlandic swings, the 57-year-old White spends a lot of time in front of a mass spectrometer. It’s not pure tedium, but it pales in comparison to doing fieldwork in minus-30 degree summer weather, with 60-mile-an-hour winds howling and expensive scientific instrumentation freezing at inopportune moments. His fieldwork and lab work have led to sobering revelations about how fast the planet can heat up. “We’ve seen changes of five degrees to six degrees Celsius happen in just a few years,” he says. “These are time scales that human beings can get excited about.”

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