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Earth's Atmosphere Trapped in Ice: 800,000 Years of Climate Change

October's Shell London lecture, delivered by Eric Wolff (British Antartic Survey) at the Geological Society on 19 October 2011.

Predictions about the future of our climate need to be firmly grounded in knowledge of how climate has behaved in the past. Ice cores offer a unique perspective because they contain a record not only of polar climate but also of the composition of the atmosphere. This record is found in tiny air bubbles trapped in the ice and enables us to view the natural changes in greenhouse gas concentrations that occurred in the past as well as the extraordinary growth in emissions in the last 200 years.

The lecture will give details of the principles behind the acquisition and use of ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica, and will then present some of the most exciting findings. The climate of the last 800,000 years has been very dynamic, with Earth passing through successive glacial-interglacial cycles. Eric will discuss some of the driving factors, and the patterns of climate change that are observed. He will also discuss how this helps us to build confidence in predictions about the future, even though the ice core record contains no period with greenhouse gas concentrations as high as those we are now experiencing.


Eric Wolff


Eric Wolff is a Science Leader at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) in Cambridge. He has studied ice cores from the Antarctic and Greenland for the past 30 years, using them to understand changing climate, as well as changing levels of pollution in remote areas. He also carries out research into the chemistry of the lower parts of the Antarctic atmosphere.

At BAS, he leads the programme: “Chemistry and Past Climate.” He chaired the science committee of the European Project for Ice Coring in Antarctica (EPICA), which produced 800,000 year records of climate from the Dome C (Antarctica) ice core and co-chairs the international initiative to coordinate future ice core research. He has recently developed a strong interest in interpreting the changes in greenhouse gas concentrations across glacial-interglacial cycles. He has published over 150 papers, many of which have been highly cited. He was awarded the Agassiz medal of the European Geosciences Union cryosphere division in 2009, and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2010. He holds an Honorary Visiting Professorship at University of Southampton.