The groundbreaking Vostok ice core from Antarctica is the deepest ever to have been drilled. It recorded 440 ka of climate and atmospheric history, but unfortunately the very depth of the ice beneath the drilling station made that the limit in time terms. Thick ice begins to deform and flow, and the lowest parts of the Vostok core were clearly scrambled by that. The European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA) focussed its effort on a region of the East Antarctic ice sheet (Dome Concordia) whose location may always have ensured low accumulation of snow. Hopefully that would ensure that ice thickness was not so much as to result in complex flow at depth and that a fuller record would be preserved. The idea paid off, and the Dome C core penetrates back as far as 740 ka, giving an additional 3 glacial-interglacial cycles during the early part of the 100 ka periodicity; but falling just short of the first of those major cycles that are reflected in the marine oxygen-isotope record.
Results are now starting to emerge from Dome C (Siegenthaler, U and 10 others 2005. Stable carbon cycle-climate relationship during the Late Pleistocene. Science, v. 310, p. 1313-1317. Spahni, R. and 10 others 2005. Atmospheric methane and nitrous oxide of the Late Pleistocene from Antarctic ice cores. Science, v. 310, p. 1317-1321). The results are high-quality, and reveal some new features. The first three cycles conform to the 100 ka signal of the very weak variation in orbital eccentricity, as expected, but show lower amplitude shifts in CO2 and methane in air trapped in bubbles than do the later four cycles. The two ‘greenhouse’ gases vary in concert, and their earlier low levels match with less extreme shifts in temperature as shown by the changes in deuterium content of the ice itself. This is probably due to the transition from the previous dominance by the 40 ka pace of changing axial tilt. Nitrous oxide values, although patchy down the core, seem to have fluctuated but at much the same amplitude throughout the last 720 00 ka. Dome C has yet to be ‘bottomed out’ so there is a chance that the record may yet reach the 40-100 ka boundary around 900 ka ago. What is striking – and should ring alarm bells – from the results so far is that in each of the previous 7 interglacials atmospheric neither CO2 nor methane levels came close to those of the last century. Whatever its eventual effects, anthropogenic addition to the ‘greenhouse effect’ is an incontrovertible fact.
See also: Brook, E.J. 2005. Tiny bubbles tell all. Science, v. 210, p. 1285-7