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Icy Investigation

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Earth and Environmental Sciences

Students analyze ice core samples to help learn about the climate in the past.

Over time, snow can accumulate and be compacted into ice. Sometimes this ice remains for hundreds of  thousands of years! By drilling down and removing ice cores, scientists can learn a lot about the climate in the past.

What You Need

Materials

  • Wide tray or pan
  • Cylindrical tool for cutting cores (preferably wider than a typical drinking straw, a "bubble tea" sized straw may work well)
    • It may also be helpful to have a tool (like a pencil) that fits inside the straw you can use to push the "cores" out.
  • Enough clay to fill the bottom of the tray at least an inch thick.
  • Food dye to colour the clay
  • Small "seed beads" in clear, red, green and yellow
  • Plastic knife to cut the cores
  • Toothpicks to inspect the cores
  • Optional: small plates on which to "analyze" the cores and small bags for participants to take their cores/lumps of clay with them.

Guide: 

Set-up sheet:  

What To Do

Building the "Ice Field" (Booth Set-Up)

  • Start by figuring out what period from our reference cores you would like to create. You must make at least four layers, and as long as one of those layers is a purple "volcanic" layer, participants will be able to match their core to only one spot in one reference core and will be able to "date" them.
  • Divide your clay into 3-4 lumps and dye them according to the layers you'd like to recreate.
  • Divide your clay further if necessary so you have one lump for each layer you'd like to create.
  • Add beads and mix well to incorporate.
  • Roll out your layers and start adding them to the pan. Make sure each layer reaches the edges and has no gaps in the middle. It's okay if the layers don't exactly match the thickness in the reference cores - you can explain to participants that snow can accumulate and form ice in different ways in different sports, so not every core will be exactly the same.
  • Cover the pan until you're ready to start doing the activity with participants, so the clay doesn't dry out. 

Activity

  • Take a core sampling from our "ice field" and analyze your results!
  • First, look at the layers!
    When is your core from?
    • Light blue strip- winter snow
    • Dark blue strip- summer snow
    • Purple strip - volcanic eruption (causing a layer of ask in the ice)
    • Orange strip - dust (cooler and windier periods carry more dust)
  • Next, make a long cut down the centre of your core and look at the inclusions.
    What can you learn about the climate when your core was formed?
    • Clear beads - regular oxygen (neutral)
    • Red beads - heavy isotope of oxygen (warmer)
    • Green beads - spruce pollen (cooler)
    • Yellow beads - willow pollen (warmer)

Discovery

Scientists look at the thickness of the layers to determine the temperature. They can count stripes like the rings in trees, indicating years and how conditions have changed. The particles, chemicals and bubbles of gas in the ice all give information on what the climate was like. 

Scientists can test the air in the frozen bubbles to see how much gas, like carbon or oxygen, was in the atmosphere when they formed. 

Scientists use ice cores to compare the amount of gas in the past to the amount in the air today. This allows them to make more accurate predictions about climate change. 

What's Happening?

Scientists look at the thickness of the layers to determine the temperature. They can count stripes like the rings in trees, indicating years and how conditions have changed. The particles, chemicals and bubbles of gas in the ice all give information on what the climate was like. 

Scientists can test the air in the frozen bubbles to see how much gas, like carbon or oxygen, was in the atmosphere when they formed. 

Why Does It Matter?

Scientists use ice cores to compare the amount of gas in the past to the amount in the air today. This allows them to make more accurate predictions about climate change.