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Ice cores tell it like it was and is

“I love it … it’s in my DNA”

 

 

Vaughn, Markle study ice cores to learn from past, process present

By Conrad Swanson

The Denver Post

Most people might think ahead to their lunch break, weekend or the end of the year. Bruce Vaughn and Bradley Markle think hundreds of thousands of years forward and back.

Vaughn, 67, has led the Stable Isotope Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research since 1989, and Markle, 35, joined the lab team about a year ago. By looking at cylindrical shafts of ice (called cores) drilled from the earth’s coldest places, they and their colleagues learn what they can about past climate, apply that knowledge to today’s issues and see the world in the process.

The two are just as comfortable skiing between campsites as they are tinkering with drone parts in Boulder.

Vaughn narrowly escaped death multiple times in multiple places (pulmonary edemas at high altitudes). He also once lost his tracks on the ice during white-out conditions, and shakes his head at the thought of what might have happened if he hadn’t made it back. All in the pursuit of a greater understanding of the world.

“I love it … it’s in my DNA,” Vaughn said. “Some days I’ll get dirty and greasy in the lab, other days I’ll spend crafting a nice paragraph.”

Now he’s looking forward to returning to Greenland after two years away because of the pandemic, though they’ll spend a month clearing snow that accumulated since their last visit.

Markle’s quick to share stories, too. Over lunch, he shows off a slideshow of his summer expedition across Alaska’s Juneau Icefield. It’s a mix of alpine photography, timelapses of fog rolling across the landscape, undergrads collecting snow samples and a faux wedding put on as an excuse to throw a party.

You’ve gotta have fun up there, he said with a shrug and an eyebrow raise — and a likely smile under his face mask.

His smile is famous in the lab, the “biggest smile ever,” colleague Chloe Brashear said. Markle’s the magnetic one, she said, and Vaughn’s the funny one, a jokester.

They all enjoy their work in and out of the lab, Brashea said. Science for the sake of science.

Nobody’s in it for the money, Vaughn quips — not that there’s much of it.

And nothing happens without the most crucial element: caffeine.

“The one instrument in the lab without which the others will not work,” Vaughn said while standing next to the espresso machine.

A photo of Captain Jean-Luc Picard pokes its head around one corner.

A poster of explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ill-fated Endurance expedition hangs in the freezer with the ice cores.

A stuffed Kiwi bird watches over the station where scientists melt and analyze ice core sections.

Those stations are where the lab work gets more than a little technical, but the possibilities are nearly limitless.

Vaughn said their laser spectrometers can decipher many of the world’s mysteries just by analyzing fluids. Elements always have the same number of protons in their nucleus, but the number of neutrons can vary — and that’s what you call isotopes.

Often the scientists can trace isotopic elements to specific sources or causes.

“If you try to sell me Florida orange juice and it’s actually California orange juice, we could tell,” Vaughn said.

But the lab largely focuses on hydrogen and oxygen molecules found in the ice, Markle said.

Each core contains thousands of layers of ice deposited and compressed by millennia of snowfall. The team can count those layers like rings on a tree, analyze their chemical composition and form an idea of both the temperatures at which the snow fell and how much carbon dioxide was in the atmosphere at the time.

The scientists can tell that carbon dioxide hasn’t been as concentrated in the earth’s atmosphere as it is now for at least a million years, Markle said, and it’s clear humans are the cause.

“We know more than enough,” Markle said.

Even so, the scientists all still hear the questions on airplanes, in social settings or interviews: “Is climate change real?” It is.

The real question, Markle said, is what we as a species should do about it next.

It’s a heavy political and moral topic, Vaughn acknowledges, lowering his head as he discusses the earth, melting glaciers and warming winters.

“It’s like watching an old friend die of cancer,” Vaughn said.

But the scientists take solace in their work, in each other, their adventures and the prospect of the future.

“Humans’ fortunes have always been tied to the climate,” Markle said. “If the direness of modern human-caused changes gives the importance to our work, the underlying beauty of the climate on its own definitely gives the joy to our work.”

This story is part of The Denver Post’s Faces of the Front Range project, highlighting Coloradans with a unique story to share. Conrad Swanson: 303-954-1739, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. or @conrad_swanson

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