The bubbles visible in this piece from an Antarctic ice core sample contain carbon dioxide and other gases that were trapped in the ice when formed thousands of years ago

About Ice Cores

NICL - What We Do


Introduction

The U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL) is a facility for storing, curating, and studying meteoric ice cores recovered from the glaciated regions of the world. It provides scientists with the capability to conduct examinations and measurements on ice cores, and it preserves the integrity of these ice cores in a long-term repository for current and future investigations.


Storage & Curation

NICL's most important responsibility is for the safe and secure storage and curation of ice cores that are collected primarily by National Science Foundation sponsored projects. NICL currently stores over 17,000 meters of ice core collected from various locations in Antarctica, Greenland, and North America. NICL's main archive freezer is 55,000 cubic feet in size and is held at a temperature of -36°C.

When a shipment of new ice arrives, the insulated boxes carrying the cores are quickly unloaded into the main archive freezer. Once the new ice has come to thermal equilibrium with its new surroundings, it is carefully unpacked, organized, racked and inspected. After racking, the tubes are checked into NICL's inventory system.

A refrigerator mechanic attends to the refrigeration unit on one of the 40-foot freezer shipping containers used to transport ice cores from Antarctica to NICL

A refrigerator mechanic attends to the refrigeration unit on one of the 40-foot freezer shipping containers used to transport ice cores from Antarctica to NICL.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

ice core tubes inside NICL's main archive freezer

Each silver tube on these shelves contains a 1-meter long section of an ice core. The white boxes contain new ice cores drilled from the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide ice core site.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

A loader removes a pallet of ice core boxes from a freezer shipping container with ice cores from Antarctica

A loader removes a pallet of ice core boxes from a freezer shipping container with ice cores from Antarctica.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF


Examination & Core Processing

In addition to the main archive freezer, NICL also has an exam room held at -25°C that scientists use when examining the ice cores. The exam room is 12,000 cubic feet in size and is contiguous with the main archive area. In addition, there is also a Class-100 HEPA-filtered, cold clean room held at -25°C that scientists can use.

Scientists often use the exam room to cut samples from the ice cores, and then ship the samples back to their university or laboratory for analysis. Very few analyses on the ice cores are actually carried-out at the NICL facility. Almost all of the measurements that are made on the ice cores are conducted back at the scientist's university or laboratory.

A frequent activity that is held at NICL is what is called a core processing line, or CPL, for short. When a new ice core arrives at NICL, researchers from around the country, including young scientists working on their doctorates, gather at NICL for the CPL. During the CPL, the scientists—along with NICL staff—measure, catalog, cut and ship pieces of the ice core to their respective universities and laboratories for analysis. Depending on the complexity of the cut plan, cores can typically be run through a CPL at a rate of 30-35 meters per day. At this rate, a 1000-meter long ice core takes six to eight weeks to process.

The floor plan of the exam room will be specifically tailored to the number of scientists and the type of science or sampling which will be done during a particular CPL. As many as 10 different preparation, cutting, or analysis stations may be set up to accommodate the core with additional processing being performed off the main line if required.

A  ber measures a section of the WAIS Divide ice core as it begins its journey down a CPL

A NICL staff member measures a section of the WAIS Divide ice core as it begins its journey down a CPL. Scientists and technicians will cut the ice so it can be sent to labs around the country for analysis.
[See article - Getting to the Bottom: NICL team processes deepest ice from WAIS Divide project]
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

A researcher monitors an instrument that measures electrical conductivity in the ice

A researcher monitors an instrument that measures electrical conductivity in the ice, a key piece of information for defining and dating the layers of the ice core.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

A researcher operates a planer during a CPL to shave the ice core smooth for electrical conductivity measurements

A researcher operates a planer during a CPL to shave the ice core smooth for electrical conductivity measurements.
—Credit: National Ice Core Laboratory

Researchers cut samples of ice cores that will be sent to labs around the country for chemical analyses

Researchers cut samples of ice cores that will be sent to labs around the country for chemical analyses.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

A scientist looks at a thin section of an ice core, analyzing the pattern of individual ice crystals

A scientist looks at a thin section of an ice core, analyzing the pattern of individual ice crystals.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

A scientist saws a section of an ice core destined for gas measurements, such as carbon dioxide and methane

A scientist saws a section of an ice core that will be analyzed for its ancient trapped gases, such as carbon dioxide and methane.
—Credit: Peter Rejcek, NSF

Typical CPL cut plan for a large multi-investigator ice coring project such as the WAIS Divide Ice Core Project

Typical CPL cut plan for a large multi-investigator ice coring project such as the WAIS Divide Ice Core project.
—Credit: NICL-Science Management Office

Map showing the locations of the universities and laboratories that received samples from the WAIS Divide Ice Core CPLs

Map showing the locations of the universities and laboratories that received samples from the WAIS Divide Ice Core CPLs. The WAIS Divide ice core is 3,405 meters long—the longest U.S. ice core to date—and extends back in time ~68,000 years. —Credit: Joseph Souney, Univ. New Hampshire

Next: Drilling Ice Cores