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Scientists Improve Climate Predictions by Studying Antarctica's Past

The view from the flight to Antarctica. (Image credit: Jeremy Polk, Postmodern Company)

Ice cores, or columns of ice collected from deep in the Earth's polar ice caps, contain samples of air and water that have been frozen for tens of thousands — sometimes hundreds of thousands — of years. The chemicals preserved in those samples allow researchers to create snapshots of our climate's past. And by studying past conditions, scientists can better understand the factors that drive our changing climate today.

The videos below tell three stories — they describe the process of extracting an ice core, share the experience of life at an Antarctic field camp, and explain how data from the ice record are extracted and analyzed.

Collecting an ice core can be a tricky business. It requires patience, highly complex logistics and the ability to endure months of frigid conditions.

Join a team of glaciologists, chemists and climate researchers as they embark on a journey to WAIS Divide, a stretch of ice in the middle of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. At 79°27' South, 112°07' West — thousands of miles from the nearest signs of civilization — WAIS Divide is one of the most remote locations on our planet. And with summertime temperatures averaging 15 degrees Fahrenheit (almost negative 10 degrees Celsius), it is also the ideal place for collecting an ice core.

The aerial photo above is of mountains and glaciers was taken from a C-17 on its approach to McMurdo Station, the hub of most Antarctic research conducted by the United States, and a necessary stop en route to WAIS Divide.

Editor's Note: You can learn more about today's research in Antarctica by participating in a live online chat about NSF-funded Antarctic discoveries on Jan.19, 2012, from 3. p.m. to 4 p.m. EST.

The chat will be hosted by the journal Science at Science Live and will feature Scott Borg, the director of the Division of Antarctic Sciences in NSF's Office of Polar Programs and Gretchen Hofmann, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara who specializes in polar organisms. (That chat will be archived at Science Live.) You can also learn more by surfing through NSF's multimedia special report on the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station

This Research in Action article was provided to LiveScience in partnership with the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. See the Research in Action archive.