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Greenland’s ice: A trip back in time to see the future of climate change
There are clues to the future and past trapped in Greenland's ice.
JON GERTNER: It's hard for us here to imagine what the Greenland ice sheet is like. This is thousands of miles from the United States, as well as from Europe. It's a country that few people ever visit; it's a flyover -- maybe when you're going to Northern Europe you see this vast ice sheet. And Greenland's ice sheet, you might just imagine kind of a cupcake where the icing doesn't quite go to the edges. I mean, not only is Greenland the world's largest island, but this ice sheet, which is about 1,500 miles long and 700 miles across, covers well over 80% of the island. So there's really only this narrow strip of land around the edges that have been hospitable to settlements. Because nothing really lives on the ice sheet. This is a place where frozen temperatures get down as low as minus 80 degrees fahrenheit. It's a place that was considered forsaken by the native Inuit, a place that was somewhere you would stay away from, where evil spirits dwelled.
And it was also a place that in its center -- if you consider this kind of icing on the cupcake, in the center it's 10,000 feet high. So it's this kind of giant dome of ice, and it's two miles thick. One scientist I spent a lot of time with in Greenland called it the world's largest laboratory. Which is a kind of strange phrase when you think of it as the world's largest island, and it's covered in ice. Well, why is that? But if you look back in the history it sort of offered this opportunity for the study of the one remaining ice sheet in the northern hemisphere; the other is down south in Antarctica. But it also offered some of those early scientists a way to look back in time. Because ice, in the words of a lot of scientists, is depositional. It creates a kind of record of all the deposits that fell on it through snow. And we think, OK, well it has old snow. But it's more than that. It actually holds ancient gases. It contains records from ancient volcanic eruptions. And the way we began to access that information, because it really is information, was to drill into the ice.
And the first people to do this in a significant way, they weren't actually drilling into the ice. There was this guy Ernst Sorge, who was stationed with Alfred Wegener's team in the center of the ice sheet in 1930. And he began, literally, he was camped out under the ice with another guy -- two other guys, actually -- and he began to literally dig down with a shovel. He dug a staircase into the ice. He dug about 50 meters -- 50 feet, excuse me, down into the ice. And he began to carve out blocks and bring them back up to where they were sleeping, and he would measure them on a scale. And he wanted to measure their density. And what he discerned was that there was a very kind of discernible variation between wintertime-density snow and summertime. And he could, by doing this, sort figure out exactly how many years back in time he was going. So that was the big first step. OK, you can actually measure these sort of stripes in the ice, if you think of it that way, by kind of going down deep. And after that it became much more ambitious.
In the 1950s and 1960s scientists really brought drilling rigs up there. They tried to figure out how you could kind of drill down and pull up a core, which might sound easier than you think, but it's actually quite hard because you want to retain the pristine nature of the ice. Because what you really want to do is all sorts of experiments on chemical analysis to try and understand the isotopes in the ice. And these are kind of keys to understand what ancient temperatures are like. There are also these ancient bubbles trapped in ice, and they're keys to ancient atmospheres, too. So the farther down you go, the farther back in time you go.
And we could say, well, OK, so big deal. You can figure out maybe what the temperatures were like 1,000 years ago. But that's not a trivial piece of information. Because it's not just telling us what temperatures are like, it's telling us maybe what changed. It explains pieces of history that we might not understand. It could explain, for instance, why the Greenland Norse who came to Greenland 1,000 years ago and then mysteriously died out, why did they go? Was there a dramatic temperature change? It could explain, for instance, what happened to the Earth about 11,000 or 12,000 years ago, when we see these dramatic shifts in temperature that happened really in the space of 10 or 15 years that make us ask now, gee. We always think of climate as changing sort of gradually and slowly, but actually history, as we figured out from these ice cores, shows us that climate can actually change pretty quickly, and the Earth doesn't really care about changing slowly. Sometimes it has different modes that it can just rapidly switch into.
So there's all sorts of information that we've found out from the center of Greenland's ice. It's kind of a key to the past. Sometimes it's not always reassuring, but it's always given us new knowledge that helps us think, again, about this place as a big laboratory, and not just a big hunk of ice.
- The Greenland ice sheet covers 80% of the island of Greenland. The sheet is 1,500 miles long, 700 miles across, and two miles thick. Scientists call it the largest laboratory in the world.
- By studying the minerals and gasses trapped in layers of ice, glaciologists can unravel mysteries of the past, such as what the temperature was 1,000 years ago, or search for clues as to why the Greenland Norse people vanished.
- Ice cores are a key to the past that also unlocks the future. Studying Greenland's ice sheet is yielding valuable information about the future of climate change.
- How NASA's ICESat-2 will track ice changes in Antarctica, Greenland ›
- Greenland loses 4 trillion pounds of ice in one day - Big Think ›
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Here's why you might eat greenhouse gases in the future.
- The company's protein powder, "Solein," is similar in form and taste to wheat flour.
- Based on a concept developed by NASA, the product has wide potential as a carbon-neutral source of protein.
- The man-made "meat" industry just got even more interesting.
Seriously sustainable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDIzNS9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyMjM4NTMzMX0.BCEfYnn6C3z1zUHIS38xOWjXktgamNBi5iyqklSMYK8/img.png?width=980" id="ea524" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="50533380eeb18eb5833b6b6aa3abec38" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>Solar Foods makes Solein by extracting CO₂ from air using <a href="https://www.fastcompany.com/90356326/we-have-the-tech-to-suck-co2-from-the-air-but-can-it-suck-enough-to-make-a-difference" target="_blank">carbon-capture technology</a>, and then combines it with water, nutrients and vitamins, using 100 percent renewable solar energy from partner <a href="https://www.fortum.com" target="_blank">Fortum</a> to promote a natural fermentation process similar to the one that produces yeast and lactic acid bacteria.</p><p>When the company claims its single-celled protein is "free from agricultural limitations," they're not kidding. Being produced indoors means Solar Foods is not dependent on arable land, water (i.e., rain), or favorable weather.</p><p>The company is already working with the European Space Agency to develop foods for off-planet production and consumption. (The idea for Solein actually began at NASA.) They also see potential in bringing protein production to areas whose climate or ground conditions make conventional agriculture impossible.</p><p>And let's not forget all those <a href="https://www.bk.com/menu-item/impossible-whopper" target="_blank">beef-free burgers</a> based on pea and soy proteins currently gaining popularity. The environmental challenge of scaling up the supply of those plants to meet their high demand may provide an opening for the completely renewable Solein — the company could provide companies that produce animal-free "meats," such as <a href="https://www.beyondmeat.com/products/" target="_blank">Beyond Meat</a> and <a href="https://impossiblefoods.com" target="_blank">Impossible Foods</a>, a way to further reduce their environmental impact.</p>
The larger promise<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MDI0MS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1NjU4MTg2OX0.7dZZYT5WEV_EupBuLVFwHynarTiz8RYR9aJtC6Ts2C4/img.jpg?width=980" id="3415d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2e6eebe06d795f844752f9e9d30040d7" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Solar Foods<p>The impact of the beef — and for that matter, poultry, pork, and fish — industries on our planet is widely recognized as one of the main drivers behind climate change, pollution, habitat loss, and antibiotic-resistant illness. From the cutting down of rainforests for cattle-grazing land, to runoff from factory farming of livestock and plants, to the disruption of the marine food chain, to the overuse of antibiotics in food animals, it's been disastrous.</p><p>The advent of a promising source of protein derived from two of the most renewable things we have, CO₂ and sunlight, <a href="https://solarfoods.fi/environmental-impact/" target="_blank">gets us out of the planet-destruction business</a> at the same time as it offers the promise of a stable, long-term solution to one of the world's most fundamental nutritional needs.</p>
Solar Foods' timetable<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTk0MTEzMS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5OTU1OTMwMn0.wnXh56iO_77x2XKV2uIPf78BKw4AJLUpmiyq_JBVGvo/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=172%2C146%2C62%2C135&height=700" id="0297c" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="125c9a98ec818f5c241fa28ef1423e67" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Image source: Lubsan / Shutterstock / Big Think<p>While company plans are always moderated by unforeseen events — including the availability of sufficient funding — Solar Foods plans a global commercial rollout for Solein in 2021 and to be producing two million meals annually, with a revenue of $800 million to $1.2 billion by 2023. By 2050, they hope to be providing sustenance to 9 billion people as part of a $500 billion protein market.</p><p>The project began in 2018, and this year, they anticipate achieving three things: Launching Solein (check), beginning the approval process certifying its safety as a Novel Food in the EU, and publishing plans for a 1,000-metric ton-per-year factory capable of producing 500 million meals annually.</p>
The protein powder Solein. Image source: SOLAR FOODS
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