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Brussels, 18 June 2004

EU EPICA research project: solving the climate change puzzle?

Today the European Commission presented the latest results of the EU-funded EPICA (European Ice Core Project in Antarctica) initiative. Scientists from 10 European countries including Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, and the UK have dug 3 kilometres-deep into the Antarctic ice crust and brought to the surface a 740, 000-year old ice core. It is the oldest ever analysed and records climate history. It shows changes in temperature and concentrations of gases and particles in the atmosphere. The results will feed into computer models used to predict future climate. Preliminary results show that, without human influence, the present “warm season” in Earth’s climate could last for 15 000 years more. But since the present carbon dioxide concentration is the highest in the last 440,000 years, by understanding past changes in climate, it will be possible to forecast future climate change due to human activities. Further results of the EPICA project will be disclosed at the “Palaeoclimate Conference: Reducing the Uncertainties” in Utrecht, the Netherlands, on July 6-10, 2004.

European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin said: “I am proud to see that EU research is at the forefront of climate change research. Thanks to the EU's research programmes, European scientists are able to work together and be at the cutting edge of science, in climate change research as in other fields. When European researchers work together, they are the best.”

Secrets of past climate

The core from Antarctica’s plateau contains snowfall from the last 740,000 years. Researchers extract air from tiny bubbles in the ice: analysis of the chemical composition and physical properties of the snow and the trapped air, including atmospheric gases such as CO2 and methane, shows how the Earth’s climate has changed over time. Analyses show that over the last 740,000 years the Earth experienced eight ice ages, when Earth’s climate was much colder than today, and eight warmer periods. In the last 400,000 years the warm periods have had a temperature similar to that of today. Before that time they were less warm, but lasted longer.

Ice age

The ice cores are cylinders of ice 10 cm in diameter that are brought to the surface in lengths of about 3 metres at a time. Snowflakes collect particles from the atmosphere, and pockets of air become trapped between snow crystals as ice is formed.

By comparing the pattern of this past climate with global environmental conditions today the scientists have concluded that, without human influence, the present warm period should last another 15 000 years. But human activities, such as changes in land use and greenhouse gas emissions, were much less relevant in the past – and might significantly change the future of climate.

Carbon dioxide levels are the highest they have been in the last 440,000 years. By understanding the evolution of climate in the past, EU scientists will be able to forecast future changes, in particular assessing the impact of human activities.

Extreme research conditions

EU scientists drilled the thick Antarctic surface at minus 40° in summer, in a remote location a thousand kilometres away from the nearest research station. Average annual temperatures are below –54 degrees Celsius. Researchers will keep drilling until the end of the year to reach the rocks at the base of the ice sheet. They should then reach ice over 900,000 years old at the base.

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