Montana State University

MSU researchers examine ancient pink ice from Greenland

December 13, 2004 -- By Evelyn Boswell, MSU News Service


Brent Christner scrapes one of MSU's Greenland ice samples to remove the dirtiest external layer. (Photo courtesy of Brent Christner).    High-Res Available

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Tel: (406) 994-4571
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Two chunks of ice have Montana State University researchers pondering the secrets they'll reveal about life in extreme environments and ancient Greenland.

Pink and containing water that's several hundred million years old, the ice came from the bottom of the Greenland Ice Sheet, almost two miles below the surface of the ice. It arrived at MSU Dec. 1 and was unveiled recently by Brent Christner, a postdoctoral researcher in MSU's Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences.

Christner flew to Copenhagen to negotiate for samples and bring them home. He carried his samples on the plane in a cardboard box and had the flight attendants store them in a refrigerated cart. He was able to get them back without being x-rayed to ensure that any microbial DNA remained intact. The ice survived a 17-hour flight across the Atlantic Ocean, security checks and custom inspections.

"I was a little nervous going through customs, but customs was a breeze," Christner said.

Back at MSU, Christner entered the Cold Regions Laboratory and opened his box. Then he removed five containers of blue ice - the kind you might use while packing food for a picnic - from around the Greenland ice. He laid the Greenland ice on the table and summoned the other MSU researchers. Among them were internationally renowned scientists John Priscu of the Department of Land Resources and Environmental Sciences and Ed Adams of the civil engineering department.

Adams is known for his research into avalanches and snow, but he has worked with Priscu during four seasons in Antarctica. Priscu is a polar biologist who has studied Antarctic ice for more than 25 years. He was instrumental in getting the National Science Foundation to fly the LC-130 aircraft to Greenland to help the Danes retrieve the ice and having a portion sent to MSU.

"I have only seen it in photos shown to me by Danish scientists," Priscu said of the ice that rested before him.

The ice was wrapped in clear plastic, each sample looking about the size of a can of spaghetti sauce. Part of the ice was clear. The rest was pink, although the researchers thought they might've chosen a different name for the color they saw.

The next step for the MSU researchers will be to see how contaminated the ice became during the drilling process. Was the core completely contaminated or just on the outside? The Danes had given them a list of the substances they might have introduced while drilling core samples.

Scott Busse in MSU's chemistry department will use an NMR machine to check the ice for contaminants. If the ice is clean enough, the researchers will take pieces from different parts of the samples, melt those portions and see what they disclose. Researchers from across the campus will be involved in the analysis, including Mark Skidmore and Dave Mogk in the Department of Earth Sciences.

The scientists who worked on the original North Greenland Ice Core Project are interested in climate records more than biology, Priscu said. Priscu studies microbial ecology in the dry lakes of Antarctica and wants to know what kind of life, if any, resides beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet and how they live in such a hostile environment.

Priscu believes that the samples "will tell us about conditions that existed on Greenland before it became ice-covered. It will also have important ramifications for research on the ice systems which have been discovered on Mars."

He also wants to know why the ice is pink, Priscu said. The color is similar to the subglacial ice system known as "Blood Falls" that he has studied in the Transantarctic Mountains. That ice has been found to be red because of iron oxide.

MSU's findings should lead to important new information about the distribution of microbes on our planet, Priscu said. He hopes those findings will be published in scientific journals in the next few months.

Evelyn Boswell, (406) 994-5135 or evelynb@montana.edu