This Massive Ice Vault Facility Stores Thousands of Arctic and Antarctic Ice Cores

A museum in Lakewood, Colorado contains a basement facility housing ice samples from the nearby US National Ice Core laboratory.
Mario L. Major
Ice Core SampleHeidi Roop/NSF

Mention a trip to the Denver Federal Center Museum in Lakewood, Colorado to anyone and most people would expect to find artifacts, perhaps even various financial records. In the basement of the facility, however, is a storage vault set aside for specific purpose of housing ice samples.

This Massive Ice Vault Facility Stores Thousands of Arctic and Antarctic Ice Cores
Source: National Ice Core Laboratory

One can find answers in the nearby Denver-based U.S. National Ice Core Laboratory, home to a special facility whose work is specifically dedicated to studying and analyzing ice samples, known as ice cores, collected from sites all over the world, many of them dating hundreds or even thousands of years back.

YouTuber Tom Scott took a look inside the facility where the metal containers are stored.

The ice cores contained in the metal canisters are mostly drilled in the North Pole or along the Arctic ice sheet in the South Pole, after which they are transported to the facility.

The facility also houses a separate room for analysis of samples—The main freezer for the archives if kept at a temperature of -36°C and the examination room at -24°C—some of which are shipped to research facilities, laboratories or universities where they will be used for various purposes.

This Massive Ice Vault Facility Stores Thousands of Arctic and Antarctic Ice Cores
Source: NICL

Unlocking Mysteries and Revealing Clues

The research facility was the site of a massive project which was undertaken in 2010 to analyze ice cores, and was the result of over fifteen of years of sample collection, data collection and field work as part of the National Science Foundation’s West Antarctic Ice Sheet Divide (WAIS Divide) Ice Core Project, began as an effort to understand the ways in which greenhouse gases and other chemicals were affecting the composition of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Of the project, researcher Kendrick Taylor adds, “We are very excited to work with ancient ice that fell as snow as long as 100,000 years ago. We read the ice like other people might read a stack of old weather reports.”

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Just as curators handle old paintings or sculptures with great care, scientists who use the facility are careful to not damage the cores and collect samples in the most efficient manner.

“These ice cores will give unprecedented detail of what happened to our climate over the last 100,000 years—carbon-dioxide levels, temperatures, other greenhouse gases...[there is] this uncertainty about what happens first: temperature rise or the rise of carbon dioxide. This project will answer that question. It has the potential to really change our understanding of the interaction.” 

Fully funded through the U.S. government (U.S. Geological Survey), the facility hosts tours to help the public understand not only the interesting content housed there, but more importantly, the vital role it plays in helping scientists around the world to understand the impact of climate change.