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Science
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Five programmes recorded on location at definitive collections.

Monday 9 September 2002, 9.30-9.45am

Quentin Cooper goes in search of the British Antarctic Survey's vast archive of polar ice cores, among the crates of frozen food in a commercial freezer warehouse in Peterborough. These ice samples contain a record of climatic, atmospheric and environmental change going back half a million years, and hold clues to what will happen to global climate in the future.

Arctic

The British Antarctic Survey has amassed thousands of cylindrical cores samples of Antarctic Ice from its numerous drilling operations around the polar continent. Because there's so much ice in its archive, the Survey keeps it stored in a giant commercial freezer warehouse in Peterborough. Crates of Antarctic ice are juxtaposed with boxes of white chocolate and ready-made chilli carnes. The BAS's Dr Rob Mulvanney accompanies Quentin on a tour of the -25 degree Centigrade freezer room and then takes him to BAS's headquarters in Cambridge, where he explains the plethora of information locked in the ice from times past.

The age of ice in the archive ranges from just one year old to half a million years old. Rob Mulvanney and his colleague Dr Eric Woolf describe the various insights that analysis of the ice can reveal about past climatic and environmental events and changes in Antarctica and around the world. For example, the ice contains air bubbles trapped at the time the ice fell as snow. So the levels of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the global atmosphere can be measured as far back as 500 000 years. The levels today are 25% higher than at any time in that period, which demonstrates the scale of the global impact humanity has had since the Industrial Revolution. The ice can also reveal the average temperature at any time in that period. The traces of past giant volcanic eruptions and nuclear bomb tests are also present in the polar ice.

The ice archive is a unique resource which can be interrogated by generations of scientists trying to understand the mechanisms of past climate change through four ice ages and their intervening warm periods (like now). As a result, researchers can better understand the alterations mankind is making to the global atmosphere and climate now.

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