Earth & Environment - Posted by Judy Holmes-Syracuse on Friday, March 23, 2012 11:45 - 0 Comments
Clues to climate from rare cold-water mineral
SYRACUSE U. (US) — Geochemists are using a rare mineral that forms in cold waters to unlock clues about past climate hidden in the fossil record.
Composed of calcium carbonate and water, ikaite crystals can be found off the coasts of Antarctica and Greenland.
“Ikaite is an icy version of limestone,” say Zunli Lu, assistant professor of earth sciences at Syracuse University who is leading the project. “The crystals are only stable under cold conditions and actually melt at room temperature.”
It turns out the water that holds the crystal structure together (called the hydration water) traps information about temperatures present when the crystals formed. This finding by Lu’s research team establishes, for the first time, ikaite as a reliable proxy for studying past climate conditions.
Zunli Lu’s research associate, Rosalind Rickaby of Oxford University, digs out ikaite crystals from a sediment core obtained off the coast of Antarctica. The sediment cores and the crystals must be stored in a freezer or the crystals will melt. (Credit: Syracuse University)
Straight from the Source
The research was recently published online in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters. Lu conducted most of the experimental work for the study while a post-doctoral researcher at Oxford University. Data interpretation was done after he arrived at Syracuse University.
The scientists studied ikaite crystals from sediment cores drilled off the coast of Antarctica. The sediment layers were deposited over 2,000 years. The scientists were particularly interested in crystals found in layers deposited during the “Little Ice Age,” approximately 300 to 500 years ago, and during the “Medieval Warm Period,” approximately 500 to 1,000 years ago.
Both climate events have been documented in Northern Europe, but studies have been inconclusive as to whether the conditions in Northern Europe extended to Antarctica.
Ikaite crystals incorporate ocean bottom water into their structure as they form. During cooling periods, when ice sheets are expanding, ocean bottom water accumulates heavy oxygen isotopes (oxygen 18). When glaciers melt, fresh water, enriched in light oxygen isotopes (oxygen 16), mixes with the bottom water.
The scientists analyzed the ratio of the oxygen isotopes in the hydration water and in the calcium carbonate. They compared the results with climate conditions established in Northern Europe across a 2,000-year time frame. They found a direct correlation between the rise and fall of oxygen 18 in the crystals and the documented warming and cooling periods.
“We showed that the Northern European climate events influenced climate conditions in Antarctica,” Lu says. “More importantly, we are extremely happy to figure out how to get a climate signal out of this peculiar mineral. A new proxy is always welcome when studying past climate changes.”
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