What does a piece of ice look like when it hits the bottom of a 90 meter hole in a glacier?
The answer: Something like a bullet whistling past your head.
For Professor Peter Neff of the University of Minnesota, a viral tweet showing the phenomenon launched his scientific work into the world of social media, where he now educates TikTok users about polar ice and climate change.
Neff, 35, is a glaciologist and climatologist who has made several trips to Antarctica to sample ice hundreds of thousands of years old. It landed on TikTok amid a push by the company two years ago to attract experts to the video-sharing app.
For each article, a stream of comments pours in: What do we know about the Earth’s climate thousands of years ago? What tests are run on the ice that scientists are drilling?
And: What is the oldest piece of ice that Neff has ever put in a glass of whiskey? (About 100,000 years old; it was not usable for testing.)
The platform gives everyday people rare access to a climate scientist, Neff said.
“It impacts people who see things and pique their interest in trying to become a polar scientist as well,” he said.
While discussing climate change can invite unpleasant responses, Neff’s commentators generally want to know more about the science.
Using social media is one of the few ways her career has changed. Neff used to joke that his research was a surefire way to get annual field trips. Now he’s much more driven by understanding the forces behind the Earth’s warming, he said.
Antarctic science is in a moment of catching up, after two years of COVID-related disruptions to fieldwork. Paul Cutler, director of the Antarctic science program at the National Science Foundation, said any new projects away from the US base of operations were now three years behind schedule.
At the same time, a search for research is underway. Scientists in the United States and several other parts of the world are looking for some of the oldest ice on the planet. And Neff will be part of it.
“They’re really trying to answer fundamental questions about how the climate system works,” Cutler said.
Researchers have been drilling ice cores for decades to unravel long-term trends in the planet’s past climate. The longest continuous record dates back 800,000 years.
This research provides perspective on how human-caused warming may affect part of the continent, such as the Thwaites Glacier. Melting glaciers are holding back huge sea ice that could dramatically raise sea levels.
But the most important part of these records is not the ice itself. Instead, the researchers analyze the air bubbles caught between the frozen water crystals. The air is sandwiched between snowflakes falling on Antarctica and, over time, layer by layer, compressed into the ice sheet.
“That airspace is just enclosed, which is a direct sample of the atmosphere,” Neff said. Scientists can test for greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide, providing data that shows how the planet flipped between ice ages and warmer periods in the past.
It was a historical perspective, in fact, that first drew Neff to geology and then to polar work as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. These days, he’s married to fellow college professor Heidi Roop and lives in St. Paul.
“You can hike. And not only are you getting this three-dimensional experience, you’re going to have a fourth dimension of time,” Neff said. “I understand why this valley is U-shaped. It’s because there was a glacier in it… That’s where it starts.”
Antarctica is perhaps the best place on the planet for this work. The ice hardly ever melts and it is clean. On the Greenland Ice Sheet at the opposite end of the globe, much more dust blows into the ice, corrupting air samples.
Neff’s published work focuses on the “breaking ice zone”, an area between 500 and 1,500 meters deep where the ice is under pressure and can break when brought to the surface. He has also contributed articles on the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) ice core, the second deepest ever drilled.
In the field
Isolation in Antarctica comes with difficult working conditions. Neff likened the isolation and camaraderie in the field camps to combat situations, although these are the elements they fight.
John Goodge, professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota at Duluth, described some of the challenges: Machines are running all the time so they don’t freeze. Energy requirements are high to melt ice and snow into drinking water. It is possible to get altitude sickness on the peaks of the ice cap.
And generally, the cold is intense.
“Every time I’ve been there, you get off the plane from New Zealand, and you’re never quite prepared for it,” said Goodge, who studies the mountains and valleys buried beneath the ice.
Even in these freezing conditions, the ice cores are kept extremely cold. As a graduate student, Neff helped measure and cut chunks of ice as part of the WAIS Divide project. He worked in the refrigerated storage room, minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
Researchers and staff find ways to work together in the cold — like dancing in the storage room, as Neff showed on his TikTok.
“It’s like you’re like a little family every time you’re in pitch camp,” he said.
Then they scatter around the world when the job is done.
With the easing of COVID restrictions in New Zealand, the transit point for American researchers bound for Antarctica, more work is restarting. One ambitious initiative is the Center for Oldest Ice Exploration, abbreviated COLDEX.
COLDEX’s goal is to find a location to drill an ice core that dates back 1.5 million years. This duration dates back to a period when the earth switched between ice ages and warm periods more than twice as fast as it does today. It is not known why the cycles have lengthened.
“It’s a fundamental question: how does the engine of the Earth system work?” Neff said.
Some drilling will take place in an area where the ice sheet has scraped against the mountains, pushing older ice closer to the surface.
Pilots will fly radar-equipped planes around the South Pole to search for locations that might be suitable for a deeper core.
And Goodge hopes his work will also be part of the project – he’s developed a tool called Rapid Access Ice Drill, which can quickly dig in to find good spots to drill deeper core.
Neff is Director of Field Research and Data for COLDEX. He will be at the US operations center, McMurdo Station, coordinating between teams on the ground and the main hub.
And, he said, he will share the progress of the projects on his TikTok, for all to see.
Neff got the job, he said, because he was able to work well with any team he was placed on. For those interested in similar pole work, Neff said adaptability is the most important part of the job.
“It will be above all a combination [of] focus, determination and enthusiasm,” said Neff. “That’s really what it takes.