Fire and Ice: Audio Slideshow

Originally published Nov. 21, 2014

In collaboration with Amanda Curtis
What do ancient volcanoes, polar ice, modern storms and a Texan all have in common?

A lot more than you might think.

Donna “Teye” Kalteyer, a University of Maine graduate student and research assistant who is researching the cryptotephra particles trapped in the ice at our planet’s poles, is trying to make the connection.

Tephra are the particles in volcanic ash released into the air during an eruption. Cryptotephra are very small volcanic ash particles that become trapped in ice after large volcanic eruptions. Kalteyer explains that, because the atmosphere is thinner at the equator, volcanic tephra particles, especially cryptotephra, can float above the Earth for upward of three years while simultaneously travelling great distances by wind.

Their destination? Anywhere, but Kalteyer focuses on the cryptotephra found in ice. This cryptotephra can be radiocarbon dated to refine dates on major volcanic eruptions throughout the planet’s history.

By looking at ice core samples taken at the poles, Kalteyer hopes to identify major storm events over the last 800,000 years. Climatologists can observe how the Earth responded in these past events by looking at the paleoclimate record, which can help them better predict future climate change scenarios, according to Kalteyer.

“Humans have only been recording climate events for the past, at most, 500 years,” she said. “But we can actually look physically at the chemicals in an ice core and figure out what happened with the weather and with the climate.”

She hopes her research will be used to further understand past weather events so we can better understand today’s, bridging the gap in knowledge over the last 800,000 years.

“[Tephra] creates a time-linked layer, globally or regionally,” she said. “I just think it’s really cool.”

Correction Note: Ms. Kalteyer has noted she misspoke in saying the atmosphere was thinnest at the equator. She has told us the atmosphere is actually thickest at the equator, stating she’s, “aware that the atmosphere is actually thickest at the equator, but her enthusiasm outpaced her editor.”

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