The Historical Importance of the GISPs

Joel Genuth


The two projects that have each extracted an ice core from surface to bedrock at the summit of the Greenland ice sheet — the U.S.-sponsored second Greenland Ice Sheet Project (GISP2) and GRIP, its European counterpart — offer an opportunity to experiment with the documentation of recent science. The pursuit of climatology in "big-science" frameworks poses daunting problems for anyone concerned with how future generations will understand our times. Few institutions take care to permanently preserve essential records, and posterity may find little on which to build empirical accounts of the background to geophysical discoveries that are proving critical to our understanding of our place in nature. The purpose of this essay is to stimulate participants to share their memories of recent work and to help preserve documentation.

The modern impetus to ice coring, in the view of major American participants, came from the International Geophysical Year (IGY, 1957). IGY's advocates, in their earliest planning, considered glaciology as a science that should be developed through international cooperation during the Cold War. Even though the National Science Foundation (NSF), at the request of the National Research Council, assumed leadership in organizing American activities and opposed Department of Defense efforts to absorb IGY funds, it was a military research institution, the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL) of the US Army Corps of Engineers, that became the leading American institution for extracting and studying ice cores. In the early 1960s, its Greenland researchers developed informal relations with Danish and Swiss geophysics institutes, which developed measurement techniques that complemented CRREL's abilities, and greatly expanded the utility of ice cores as a source of paleo-climatic data. (The Danes became best known for investigating the isotopic chemistry of the ice; the Swiss for investigating the composition of trapped air bubbles.) In 1966, CRREL became the first institution to drill continuously from surface to bedrock through Greenland's ice sheet.

Questions: What were the chief technical problems to be mastered? Why did CRREL, among American institutions, take the lead in mastering the problems while IGY inspired robust civilian programs in rocketry and the space sciences, which had ominously important national security implications? Why were the principal extra-mural relations of the CRREL glaciologists with Europeans and their civilian institutions?

In the 1970s, ad hoc cooperation between CRREL and the geophysics institutes in Denmark and Switzerland gave way to a NSF-funded collaboration (GISP, subsequently GISP1) between the State University of New York at Buffalo (to which one of the principal CRREL scientists had moved) and the Danish and Swiss institutes. The NSF vested responsibility for developing drills and providing field support in a Polar Ice Coring Office (PICO), which the University of Nebraska operated under contract to NSF. However, the Danish group took the lead in developing and building a new, lighter drill for deep drilling in Greenland. Such shifts in organization and affiliation raise questions about the boundary between military and civilian funding for geophysical research.

Questions: Did CRREL's scientists and administrators feel obliged to reduce their paleo-climatology activities as insufficiently relevant to military interests (though CRREL did extract shallow and intermediate-length cores as part of GISP1's exploration of possible deep drilling sites.)? Were state universities of lesser prestige more aggressive or better positioned than the traditional elite universities for absorbing research programs that the military needed to divest? What was PICO's relationship to CRREL, and why did PICO not take the lead in developing a lighter drill for deep drilling in Greenland?

GISP1, using the "Danish drill," reached bedrock in 1981 at a site that was logistically convenient, but did not maximize the scientific potential of the effort, because the hilly bedrock at that site limited the ability of the participants to date the lowest levels of ice. However, the project did establish the capabilities of the drill and eliminated any doubts about the feasibility of drilling cores from the glacier's summit, where ice flow and deformation would least affect the lowest and oldest layers of ice. Ironically, GISP1's technical and scientific successes rendered its social arrangements unviable. Theories of global warming had become a unifying focus of interest among earth scientists in the 1970s, and generating data sets that would enable scientists to search for relationships between changes in temperature and atmospheric composition over time became important for both intellectual and policy reasons. A project to take an ice core from the Greenland ice-sheet summit thus attracted many glaciologists and atmospheric scientists with a bevy of ideas for making measurements — far more than could be satisfied by a project in which three principal investigators set the scientific agenda.

Adapting to the increased scientific interest in extracting deep cores from Greenland's ice sheet proved to be a six-year process that taxed relationships between American scientists and the NSF and between European and American scientific communities. The NSF, which had provided the funds for the expensive logistics of obtaining the ice core in GISP1, became wary of funding the even more expensive logistics of drilling at the glacier's summit, because of the lack of a major American scientific presence in GISP1. Meanwhile the United States military, to which the NSF was the obvious go-between for European scientists, was the principal source of transport planes suitable for ferrying people and equipment to the ice sheet. However, the Danes controlled the only extant drill capable of drilling to bedrock in Greenland, and the Danish government had jurisdiction over Greenland. Legal genius was not required to see the makings of a deal: the Danish government could authorize a project in which the "Danish drill" would be used to provide ice to an expanded contingent of American scientists, in exchange for NSF providing most of the funding for logistics and for NSF arranging for space for Europeans and their equipment on US military transports. However, before entering negotiations for such a deal, NSF officials needed to figure out what should constitute a national research program to take advantage of an ice core from Greenland's summit.

The NSF turned to the National Academy of Sciences and its Polar Research Board (Committee on Glaciology) to build a community of American scientists with the ability and will to reach consensus on what a large drilling project should entail. The Academy's report recommended formation of an Ice Core Working Group (ICWG) to develop concrete plans for a project. However, the pace of the ICWG's planning left influential scientists dissatisfied. The GISP1 principal investigators were ready to proceed immediately to drilling at the summit, and prominent American theorists were eager for data to test their ideas concerning the timing and mechanisms of climatic change.

Questions: What were NSF's expectations for the Academy and the Academy for NSF? What were the ICWG's criteria for a viable participant in a second, more logistically challenging GISP? What sort of retooling did scientists who wished to become involved in using ice cores, but were trained in extracting climatological signals by examining other media (e.g., sediments or tree rings.), need to undergo in order to feel confident in their ability to handle ice? What kind of scientific results (and to what degree of precision) did different participants expect?

In meetings held during the winter and spring of 1987, the ICWG, the disgruntled American scientists, and the frustrated Europeans found they had enough in common to organize two proposal-writing campaigns. The Europeans and Americans were each to petition their own funding sources for the money to drill and examine ice cores independently, locate the two drill sites within reach of each other, and share the costs of transport provided by military planes. On the American (GISP2) side, ICWG chairman Paul Mayewski of the University of New Hampshire (UNH) agreed to be the clearinghouse for information for the kind of proposal-writing campaign favored by the disgruntled American scientists. In addition to drafting his own scientific proposal, Mayewski proposed that UNH be funded to set up a Science Management Office to take care of the collective needs of the funded American principal investigators. NSF tasked PICO with developing a new drill for deep drilling in Greenland. NSF did not receive from Congress the funds to initiate GISP2 in Fiscal Year 1988, but it did in 1989. By 1992, 30 scientists, mostly from universities but also from research institutes and government laboratories, were responsible for 25 proposals that promised to measure various parameters of the ice core, its occluded gases, and the Greenland environment, or to provide needed administrative services. 26 of these scientists made measurements on the ice or its contents; 11 had little or no experience working with ice cores before the planning of GISP2. The independence of the European and American projects, the novelty of the research for many of the American scientists, and the anxieties associated with the re-competition of PICO's contract and PICO's development and operation of a new drill, posed obvious and important scientific and social questions.

Questions: Who was to decide, and on what criteria, for how the American and European projects could complement each other? Who was to decide, and on what criteria, the proper division of ice samples among the scientific groups? What obligations did the scientists have to share their raw or processed data with each other? What system, if any, did participants set up for tracking who was addressing particular scientific topics? What disagreements arose over techniques for measuring various parameters, including the dating of the cores? What obligations, if any, did the scientists have to seek consensus among the participants for their findings prior to their submission for publication? What were the chief problems and surprises in analyzing ice cores? Have the most significant findings to come out of ice drilling the product of measurements that in the planning of the projects were expected to be prominent? We hope that GISP participants will take the time to share their recollections, and even look through their paper and electronic files, and send copies of the documents they consider crucial to illuminating the development of the GISPs and GRIP. Please send by email.

History of Greenland Ice Drilling HOME
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Copyright © 1999 Joel Genuth and American Institute of Physics