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The Iceman Stayeth at the National Ice Core Lab

two workers at the Ice Core Lab
Eirik Ogilvie-Wigley (left) and (standing on ladder) John Melrose, two workers at the Ice Core Lab, carefully pull core for examination.
Photo by Richard Nunn, USGS

The National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL) is the Nation's premier repository for storing and curating ice cores recovered from ice sheets, ice caps, and glaciers of the world.

In the late 1980s, a collaboration of the USGS and the University of Colorado was selected to build and manage a new national ice core facility through a National Science Foundation (NSF) competitive proposal process.

Owned by the NSF, the NICL was dedicated in 1993 in Building 810 of the Denver Federal Center. Prior to the official opening, approximately 1,300 meters (m) of ice cores from the Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2 (GISP2) 1992 field season were accepted at the new facility. Next, an ice core collection from a then-existing facility at the State University of New York (SUNY) Buffalo was moved to the NICL when it opened in 1993.

The USGS operates and maintains the NICL for the NSF Office of Polar Programs through an Interagency Agreement. The NICL's mission is to:

  • Provide physical security and maintain an optimal storage environment for ice cores obtained around the globe
  • Ensure that ice cores are readily available to clients
  • Guarantee currency and availability of inventory records
  • Offer safe and convenient lab space for processing ice cores
  • Promote ice core research by serving as an informational nexus for the international ice core research community
  • Ship ice cores throughout the United States and to several foreign countries

The NICL freezer has a footprint of nearly 8,000 square feet (ft2) and is divided into two sections, an exam room and main storage. The exam room—where cores are processed, cut, and studied—is kept at -24 degrees Celsius (oC) and takes up approximately 1,400 ft2. The main storage area (where cores are kept for long-term archival storage) is a chilly -36oC and occupies nearly 5,400 ft2 of space. This freezer currently houses a collection of more than 17,000 m of ice cores recovered from 141 boreholes in Antarctica, Greenland, and North America and includes Summit, Greenland (>110,000 years old), and Vostok, Antarctica (~450,000 years old), cores. The collection contains most of the samples remaining from deep-drilling projects funded by NSF from 1958 to the present.

The most recent addition to the NICL collection is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide core. Drilling for this project began in 2007, and in January 2012 a final depth of approximately 3,404 m was reached. Over the last five years, the ice recovered from the WAIS Divide project has been shipped backed to the NICL and put through a core processing line. Each meter of ice is cut into various samples for the principal investigators of the project, while leaving behind a significant portion for long-term archival storage. The information gathered from the WAIS Divide core will help provide scientists with a clearer picture of the history of climate change.

In 1997, when the NSF put out another request for proposal for the science management of the NICL, the University of New Hampshire was selected. Since 1998, the NICL Science Management Office has administered the scientific management of the NICL, with direction from an Ice Core Working Group. Management responsibilities include:

  • Allocation of samples from the archive
  • Use of the facility by the scientific community
  • Instrumentation at the laboratory
  • Storage capability
  • Future directions for the laboratory

Currently, the USGS is in the process of preparing a five-year proposal for the continued operation and maintenance of the NICL.

As part of NICL efforts to promote knowledge and understanding of ice core research, tours of the facility are offered as a form of outreach. Since the NICL is a working facility, tours are limited to one per week and are offered to anyone interested in learning about ice core research as it relates to NICL efforts. For large groups interested in scheduling a tour, it is a good idea to contact the NICL at least three months in advance, since tours are in high demand. For smaller groups of ten people or less, it is sometimes possible to be added to a previously scheduled tour.

For more information, visit the NICL science management office Web site at nicl-smo.unh.edu/ or the NICL home page at nicl.usgs.gov. To contact the NICL, email us at nicl@usgs.gov, or call us at 3032024830.