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Frozen In Time

December 05, 2016

Frozen In Time

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Who ever said we cannot time travel? A team of environmental scientists from the University of Milano-Bicocca beg to differ. The researchers can obtain ice samples from the Antarctic ice cores from Victoria Land - a peripheral ice dome of the East Antarctic Ice Sheet -  that carry information about atmospheric composition, mineral dust deposition, marine aerosol and many other organic and inorganic species that have been literally frozen in time for the past hundred thousand years. 1 Piecing together what they find,  paleoclimatologists hope to gain a better understanding of our past environment and how it has changed as per the succession of ice ages and warm periods occurred in the last million years, since the time Mammoths roamed the planet. For those futurists amongst us, no need to fret. Researchers are looking to see if past polar ice melts can help predict the fate of coastal regions around the globe if sea levels rise significantly. 2

At the University of Milano-Bicocca, a team is developing new techniques for the analysis of Antarctic ice core samples, with a focus on the observation of tiny mineral particles entrapped within the ice. Atmospheric mineral particles, better known as “dust,” are globally produced in dry regions and transported all over the globe in the atmosphere. After travelling thousands of miles, the dust is finally deposited on the remote glaciers of Antarctica. Here it has been preserved for thousands of years, together with important information about atmospheric circulation, past environmental conditions, and wind strength.

Analyzing the dusts in these ices can be challenging. Sample availability is strictly limited, and the concentration of analytes as “airborne relics” is incredibly low. That means scientists at the University of Milano-Bicocca needed to leverage the best analytical tools available without squandering precious ice samples.

Unlocking Secrets

To overcome these inherent challenges, Dr. Giovanni Baccolo and his colleagues at the Department of Environmental Sciences at the University of Milano-Bicocca rely on a number of state-of-the-art instruments needed to reach peak analytical performances when analyzing the polar ice cores. Among the most significant of these instruments is the PerkinElmer NexION® 350 SP-ICP-MS, equipped with the Syngistix™ Nano Application Module. The combination of this single particle ICP-MS and real-time data processing software allows the University of Milano-Bicocca research team to acquire as many as 100,000 data points per second.  These data points are now helping to reveal the inorganic composition of ancient dust samples right down to the single digit nanometer level. 3 For comparison’s sake, a human hair measures 80,000 nm wide.

So far, the researchers have found trace amounts of aluminum, calcium, silicon, and iron in the ancient ice cores at very low particulate levels. Employing the NexION® 350 SP-ICP-MS also demonstrates the instrument’s ability to discriminate between dissolved and particulate forms of major elements in the ice dust, with important climatic and environmental consequences, Dr. Baccolo says.

The Milano research team is also impressed by the NexION SP-ICP-MS ability to discover and determine elements in the dust samples without any prior separation—a first for their research. “It is element specific, and provides ionic and particulate concentration, particle size, and size distribution,” Dr. Baccolo says. 4

Such information is significant for several reasons. The size and shape of dust particles from the ice cores, for example, are already known to influence the global climate directly, in particular the radiative properties of the atmosphere. Now armed with new data and details from thousands of years in the past, scientists can feed that information into climate simulation models to help develop parallels to modern-day climate changes.

We are PerkinElmer, a global leader of over 8,000 scientists and professionals who are committed to innovating for a healthier world…even as far as Antarctica.


  1. EPICA Community Members, “Eight glacial cycles from an Antarctic ice core”, Nature, vol. 429, p 623-628, 2004.
  2. Amy Dusto, “Climate At The Core: How Scientists Study Ice Cores To Reveal Earth’s Climate History,” Climate News, NOAA, accessed November 7, 2016.
  3. Giovanni Baccolo, Massimiliano Clemenza, Barbara Delmonte, and Riccardo Magarini, “Soluble And Insoluble Elemental Content In Antarctic Ice Cores,”University of Milano-Bicocca and PerkinElmer Presentation, European Mineralogical Congress, September 12, 2016.
  4. Ibid.

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