UMaine shares ice core technology with China

September 16, 2004

In an ongoing collaboration between the University of Maine's Climate Change Institute (CCI) and Chinese scientists, UMaine has loaned an important ice core research instrument to the Cold and Arid Regions Environment and Engineering Research Institute of the Chinese Academy of Science in Lanzhou in central China. With funding from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), two CCI members - Susan Kaspari, a Ph.D. student, and Sharon Sneed, CCI laboratory coordinator - traveled to Lanzhou in August to set up an ice core melter, process a core and train Chinese scientists in its use.

The project stems from collaboration between CCI Director Paul Mayewski and Chinese scientists that began in the 1980s in Antarctica. Mayewski conducted a joint research project with the leader of the Chinese expedition, Qin Dahe.

China has a research station on the southern continent and participates in the International Trans Antarctic Scientific Expedition that was founded by Mayewski. As part of CCI's global ice core research program, Kaspari and Mayewski have also participated in ice core drilling expeditions in Asia, co-led by Mayewski and Dahe. A joint expedition to New Zealand, led by scientists from all three countries, is planned for this fall.

"Chinese researchers are very resourceful," says Kaspari. "They are experienced working on glaciers and at high altitudes." Kaspari's research focuses on the use of chemicals in ice cores to describe environmental changes, particularly as they may relate to atmospheric circulation.

In the past, "we've shared our laboratories at the University of Maine" by doing analytical work on ice cores from those expeditions, says Sneed, who processes cores at CCI. Ice cores collected in Asia have been sent to the United States for processing, but transporting ice for long distances carries the risk of delays and accidents. "If an ice core melts, the data are lost. It was decided to ship (water) samples rather than ice," she adds.

On their trip to Lanzhou, Kaspari and Sneed hand carried an ice core melter built at UMaine, but they had sent ahead six cartons of laboratory supplies such as vials, scalpels and gloves. Once all the equipment arrived, they worked with an American and three Chinese students to successfully melt an 87-meter ice core from a central Tibetan peak, Geladandong. Although Kaspari conducted some filtering work in Lanzhou, she sent the samples back to UMaine for further analysis. The researchers worked closely with Shichang Kang, a Chinese scientist who has spent several years at UMaine and participated in joint expeditions with Mayewski.

Kaspari is studying techniques to detect radionuclides such as cesium-137 and strontium-90 that can be used to date ice core layers. She is also focusing on particles of black carbon that are produced from the incomplete combustion of fuels and may contribute to global warming.

Ice cores drilled from glaciers in central Asia can shed light on changes in atmospheric circulation in that part of the world, helping scientists to understand the driving forces behind climate patterns such as the annual monsoons of India and Asian dust storms.

University of Maine

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