the boiling science of ice cores


An archive cellar for ice cores taken in Antarctica, Franco-Italian Concordia station.

“From polar ice to the climate of the earth. Survey of a scientific adventure”, by Morgan Jouvenet, CNRS Editions, 348 p., €25, digital €18.

The story is known. In 1965, the French glaciologist Claude Lorius noticed air bubbles on the surface of the whiskey into which he had dipped a piece of one of the ice cores brought up by his team from the depths of the ice sheet – the giant glacier – that covers Antarctica. He then had an intuition that would permanently change the way of describing the evolution of the Earth's climate, says sociologist Morgan Jouvenet in From polar ice to the earth's climate. What if the gas escaping from this piece of ice formed thousands of years ago had retained characteristics that were those of the climate at the time it was imprisoned? If, in short, Antarctica were a huge archive of the planet's climate, just waiting for the arrival of scientists clever enough to decipher the traces left by the atmosphere of the past in this fragile and translucent material?

Many expeditions were organized to collect more and more ice and thus go up the scales of time. In October 1987, the prestigious magazine Nature devoted an entire issue to the results of the analyzes carried out on these ice cores. A definite link could finally be affirmed between the presence of CO₂ and methane in the atmosphere and global warming. The glacial archive therefore contained proof of the entry into the Anthropocene, this era in which human activity influences even the geology or the earth's climate. “Lorius Whiskeynotes Morgan Jouvenet, joins the list of those catalysts of ideas that punctuate the popular history of science, such as Archimedes' bath and Newton's apple. »

A scholarly community

Obviously, the sociologist could not stop at this mythical and heroic story. He patiently followed the thread of the publications of these researchers, visited the laboratories in which they worked and questioned those who were there. His first discovery was that the scientific edifice built since the 1960s is less the product of the intuition of a few heroes than that of a scholarly community, certainly forged by the stories of “early polar heroism” and the imaginary journey to the poles, but whose complex organization – a “scientific city on ice”, he notes – is the only guarantee that the glacial archive can be extracted, sectioned, catalogued, transported and finally analyzed.

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