Print this page

Have a news item you would like featured? Fill out the request here (UW NetID Restricted).

  • A promising target in the quest for a 1-million-year-old Antarctic ice core
    Wednesday, May 23, 2018

    Ice cores offer a window into the history of Earth’s climate. Layers of ice reveal past temperatures, and gases trapped in bubbles reveal past atmospheric composition. The oldest continuous ice core so far comes from Dome C in East Antarctica and extends back 800,000 years.

    But a tantalizing clue recently offered the possibility to go back even further. A collaborative study between the University of Washington and the University of Maine now pinpoints a location where an entire million years of undisturbed ice might be preserved intact.

    “There’s a strong desire to push back the date of the oldest ice core record, to better understand what drives natural climate changes,” said Laura Kehrl, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences and corresponding author of a recent paper in Geophysical Research Letters. “The Allan Hills has been an area of interest since the 1970s, when scientists started finding lunar and Martian meteorites that had struck Earth long ago. Now we’re discovering its potential for old ice.”

    blue ice with sled in distance

    The Allan Hills has older, blue ice exposed at the surface. Researchers towed their instrument on this wooden sled. The sloping topography and slippery surface made it challenging for radar surveys.Laura Kehrl/University of Washington

    The team gathered observations in Antarctica’s Allan Hills Blue Ice Area, named for the blue ice that is exposed at the surface when ice above gets vaporized. This windy, desert area gets less than 1 centimeter of snow accumulation per year.

    Allan Hills is located near the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, which separate the large, desert plateau of East Antarctica from the stormy West Antarctic Ice Sheet. Ice moves slowly here, less than 1 meter (3 feet) per year. The region had long been rejected in the search for an old ice core because ice flowing over the steep topography at the base seemed likely to be disturbed.

    yellow tent on snow

    A snowstorm interrupted the fieldwork and left the researchers confined to their field camp for three days. In this windy desert region, most of the snow was blown away the next day.Laura Kehrl/University of Washington

    But surprising findings published last summer by a Princeton University team found fragments of ice as far back as 2.7 million years several hundred feet below the surface in the Allan Hills. Those isolated chunks had been separated from their full history. Now the UW team thinks it has found a location nearby that would have a continuous, unbroken record.

    “A primary reason to seek such old ice is to understand one of the major puzzles of climate system history,” said second author Howard Conway, a UW research professor of Earth and space sciences and UW’s principal investigator of the project. The puzzle, he explained, is why Earth switched about 1 million years ago from having ice age cycles about every 41,000 years to every 100,000 years. Marine climate records show this switch occurred but they do not resolve details in the atmospheric composition 1 million years ago that might explain the cause.

    wooden sled loaded with instruments

    This wooden sled holds the ice-penetrating radar equipment. The researchers ride on a snow machine about 100 feet ahead.Laura Kehrl/University of Washington

    During the austral summer of 2016, UW researchers traveled to McMurdo Station and then flew to the field site. With support from the National Science Foundation they set up a remote camp on a patch of snow in the Allan Hills, 6,400 feet above sea level.

    Researchers used snow machines to tow ice-penetrating radar around the region. The radar sends radio waves into the ice, which reflect off of layers of ice with different chemistries and densities, providing an image of the structure below.

    A computer model of glacier flow incorporating the data from those surveys suggests that million-year-old ice is about 25 to 35 meters (about 100 feet) above the bedrock at a site roughly 5 kilometers (3 miles) from the place where the 2.7-million-year-old ice was found.

    Left: The Allan Hills Blue Ice Area in Antarctica, showing the research camp, the 2.7-million-year old ice and the proposed drilling site. The black line marks the track of the radar profile on the other panel. Right: Radar reflections from layers with different chemistry. The red dashed lines show two layers of volcanic ash deposits of known age. The black dashed line is the proposed core site.

    Left: The Allan Hills Blue Ice Area in Antarctica, showing the research camp, the 2.7-million-year old ice and the proposed drilling site. The black line marks the track of the radar profile on the other panel. Right: Radar reflections from layers with different chemistry. The red dashed lines show two layers of volcanic ash deposits of known age. The black dashed line is the proposed core site.Laura Kehrl/University of Washington

    The UW and Maine team has submitted a follow-up proposal to the National Science Foundation to drill the core. Kehrl says it’s “not unlikely” that they would retrieve an undisturbed record back to 1 million years. An added benefit of drilling here, she said, would be to learn the history of the Ross Ice Shelf and whether it has collapsed in the past, and how that corresponded to carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

    Read Laura Kehrl’s blog from the field, including a post about the quest for a 1-million-year ice core

    “Regardless of whether the million-year ice is there, the record is likely to be valuable,” Kehrl said.

    Other co-authors are postdoctoral researchers Nicholas Holschuh and Seth Campbell at the UW, and Andrei Kurbatov and Nicole Spaulding at the University of Maine. The research was funded by the National Science Foundation.

    person standing on ice

    Laura Kehrl on a hike near McMurdo Station while waiting for a flight to the Allan Hills area.Nicole Spaulding/University of Maine


    For more information, contact Kehrl at or Conway at or 206-685-8085.

    Read More
  • Mount St Helens Eruption Remembered by UW Scientist Studying It
    Tuesday, May 22, 2018
    Steve Malone, Research Professor Emeritus in ESS is interviewed by KING-TV on the 38th anniversary of the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens. Read More
  • Information Regarding Planned ASE Strike on Tuesday
    Tuesday, May 22, 2018
    ESS classes and labs will follow normal schedules today.

    Please check here for the latest information regarding the ASE Strike planned for Tuesday, May 15th.


    4-16-18: Email from Mindy Kornberg: Notification of contract negotiation between UW Administration and UAW Local 4121 to faculty and staff

    Week of 4-23-18: UAW Local 4121 ASE Vote to Authorize a strike (Passed by 92%)

    4-25-18: Email from Mindy Kornberg: Notification of preparation for a possible ASE work stoppage to faculty and staff

    4-30-18: Current ASE contract expired

    5-4-18: Graduate student ASEs presented at ESS Faculty Meeting

    5-7-18: Graduate student ASEs sent letter to ESS Faculty regarding contract negotiations and possible work stoppage

    5-8-18: Graduate student/Chairs Town Hall regarding possible UAW Job Action

    5-10-18: UAW Local 4121/UW ASE rally

    5-11-18: Graduate student ASEs sent letter to ESS Undergraduates regarding one-day strike on May 15

    5-15-18: UAW Local 4121/UW ASE One-Day Strike

    Read More
  • A Kilauea eruption like no other | Physics Today
    Friday, May 18, 2018
    The famously active Kilauea volcano in Hawaii typically erupts at existing fissures and triggers minor earthquakes. This latest event has no such limitations. George Bergantz, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, is quoted. Read More
  • Mt. St. Helens and Hawaii, is their activity related?
    Tuesday, May 15, 2018
    Prof. George Bergantz was interviewed on King5 News about the similarities and differences between Mt. St. Helens and Kilauea in Hawaii. Read More
  • Satellite photos show Hawaii volcano leaking lava, toxic gas | NBC News
    Tuesday, May 15, 2018
    New photos taken by a NASA satellite offer a unique perspective on the continuing eruption of Hawaii's Kilauea volcano. George Bergantz, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, is quoted. Read More
  • Activity at Kilauea brings renewed attention to volcanic hazards in Washington State
    Tuesday, May 8, 2018
    Prof. George Bergantz was recently interview regarding the sudden change in eruptive activity at Kilauea volcano and implications for Cascade volcanoes. Read More
  • UW researchers will survey Antarctica's Thwaites Glacier as part of major international effort
    Tuesday, May 8, 2018

    The National Science Foundation and the U.K.’s Natural Environmental Research Council this month announced a joint 5-year, $25 million effort to study Antarctica’s Thwaites Glacier.

    International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration logo

    Nicknamed the “world’s most dangerous glacier,” Thwaites Glacier already is contributing to rising seas; if it collapsed it would raise global sea level by about three feet. The glacier may also act as a linchpin on the whole West Antarctic Ice Sheet, which could raise sea level by much more.

    University of Washington glaciologists will participate in one of the eight projects funded through the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration to better understand the glacier and predict what it will do next.

    ridged ice with airplane wing in foreground

    Reconnaissance flight over Thwaites Glacier, which is thought to act as a buttress on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.U.S. Antarctic Program/National Science Foundation

    “About 100 scientists are involved in this initiative, which is the largest Antarctic deep-field effort in 70 years,” said Knut Christianson, assistant professor of Earth and space sciences and the UW’s principal investigator on the project. “This is one of the largest deep-field efforts ever attempted in West Antarctica, and is on a scale neither the U.S. nor the U.K. -- or anyone else -- could accomplish alone.”

    The UW is participating in the Geophysical Habitat of Subglacial Thwaites, or GHOST project, that will collect on-the-ground data to see the details of the glacier’s internal structure and better map the surface underneath.

    The information they collect will provide better data to feed into the computer models that scientists are using to forecast the future of Earth’s climate.

    “It’s unlikely that the ice-sheet modelers have the big story wrong,” Christianson said. “But if you’re looking for shorter-term estimates, having detailed information about the bed conditions or how ice is flowing over a ridge can be useful for understanding how the glacier might behave over the next few decades or century.”

    That’s the kind of timeline that would be useful on the ground. A 2014 UW study found that Thwaites Glacier would likely collapse within 200 to 1,000 years, though other estimates also exist. More data could provide a firmer timeline.

    graphic of glacier with instruments all around

    A graphic showing all the different projects that will be part of the collaboration.Ben Gilliland/NERC

    The GHOST team plans to spend two 60-day seasons in the field during the Antarctic summer, beginning in late 2019 and late 2020. An initial trip later this year will install equipment and fuel caches and survey potential base camps.

    During the field campaign, the team will begin near the glacier's coastal terminus, where the most rapid changes are occurring. Christianson, UW postdoctoral researcher Nick Holschuh and a graduate student will conduct the scans. The UW team plans to travel by snowmobile, surveying about 50 km (31 miles) of the glacier per day. Every week or so the entire GHOST project’s science team will move and set up a new camp, gradually working its way uphill toward the ice sheet's interior.

    researchers standing with equipment on ice

    Knut Christianson (center) on Helheim Glacier in eastern Greenland in August 2014. The ground-penetrating radar, inside the case, is powered by the solar panel on the lower left.

    The UW researchers will use two different radars to map individual layers of snow and ice, and the underlying bedrock. The first technology, ground-penetrating radar, has been used by Christianson’s group for years and can penetrate through more than 2 miles of ice. His team’s data will complement airborne surveys being done by other teams.

    “To map out a glacier’s internal structure, it’s advantageous to have a ground-based survey,” Christianson said. “If you want to recover very steeply-sloped layers of ice where the ice has folded, you can acquire higher-quality data if you’re driving on the ground. These layers tell us about the past flow structure of the ice, as well as the current deformation: where it’s bending in response to a sticky edge, or an area where there’s a lot of friction at the base.”

    The other method the UW team will use is a newer tool developed by the British Antarctic Survey that sends similar waves into the glacier but is designed for determining relative rates of change between layers in the ice detected by the radar. This technique allows detection of changes in glacier internal structure with a scale of just fractions of an inch, rather than several feet. Christianson hopes to repeat these scans a few weeks apart to see the details of Thwaites Glacier’s movement during a single summer.

    “By taking the difference of two measurements we can see the ice deform and study how it flows in near-real time,” Christianson said. “This technique has been used in glaciology for about the last five years, but we’ll be doing it on a new scale for this project.”

    The GHOST project is led by Sridhar Anandakrishnan at Pennsylvania State University and Andy Smith at the British Antarctic Survey, and involves scientists from several other U.S. and U.K. institutions.

    Watch a video featuring leaders of the overall Thwaites Glacier project:


    For more information on the UW effort, contact Christianson at More information on the larger project is at

    Read More
  • Early Earth's mild climate may signal life on other planets |
    Wednesday, April 4, 2018
    Early Earth has always had a volatile reputation. Previous studies have estimated various scenarios ranging from an ice-covered, snowball Earth to a sweltering environment complete with acidic oceans. David Catling, a UW professor of Earth and space sciences, and Joshua Krissansen-Totton, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences, are quoted. Read More
  • Four UW students honored by Goldwater Foundation
    Tuesday, April 3, 2018

    Three University of Washington undergraduates are among 211 students nationwide named as 2018 Goldwater Scholars. One UW student received honorable mention.

    The Barry Goldwater Scholarships are awarded to students who have "outstanding potential" and plan to pursue research careers in mathematics, natural sciences or engineering. The awards cover tuition, room and board, fees and books up to $7,500 annually for one or two years.

    The 2018 Goldwater Scholars from the UW are Nelson Liu, Kimberly Ruth and Tyler Valentine. Andrew Luo earned an honorable mention.

    Shown left to right are Liue, Ruth, Valentine and Luo.

    Shown left to right are Liu, Ruth, Valentine and Luo.University of Washington

    • Liu, who is from California, is a computer science, statistics and linguistics major who hopes to teach at the university level and conduct research on natural language processing and machine learning.
    • Ruth, whose home state is Washington, is pursuing a double major in computer engineering and mathematics. She plans to pursue a doctorate in computer science on her way to a research career in computer science and privacy.
    • Valentine, who is from Washington, is majoring in Earth and space sciences. He plans to pursue a doctorate in space science and engineering focused on using the resources of near-Earth space.
    • Luo, who is from Washington, is a double major in computer science and bioengineering.

    The Goldwater Foundation fielded a total of 1,280 nominations from colleges and universities throughout the United States in 10 fields.

    This year's scholars were chosen from among 1,280 students nominated by faculty members at colleges and universities around the country, and include 110 men and 99 women. The majority -- 142 -- are majoring in natural sciences-related fields; 29 are math and computer science majors, and 40 are engineering majors. Many are pursuing dual majors and almost all hope to obtain a doctorate.

    The Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Program was established by Congress in 1986 to honor Goldwater, a five-term senator from Arizona and Air Force Reserve major general. Since 1989, the program has provided more than 8,100 scholarships totaling $65 million dollars.


    Read More