Expanding the Archive to Include Earth Too

The reading from this week’s class that I chose to focus on was D. Graham Burnett’s writing on the archive of ice located in Colorado, National Ice Core Laboratory (NICL). I found this a fascinating read because in our ever extending understanding of the archive we have moved from exploring the function, purpose, and organization archives of man-made cultural materials to now exploring the function and purpose of archiving the natural world. Discussing how to archive the ephemeral, and whether we should archive it, made me even more curious about exploring the ice archive.

There were a few things that piqued my interest and inspired me to focus on this area. The first was a personal involvement. A dear friend of mine has been exploring icy landscapes for years as a climate change artist. She is also trying to capture the ephemeral through her drawings of glaciers that are consistently changing, especially in the age of a changing climate. It seemed this archive was trying to do the same, capturing the changing ice landscapes to further understand climate change. The second was the irony of the NICL. The purpose of the archive is to study climate change, which is caused by a warming planet due to greenhouse gases emitted from human activity and energy usage. The NICL uses a massive amount of resources and energy to keep the archive cold enough for the ice, to study climate change. The third was the layers contained in this archive. The ice acts as document, in its layer’s scientists learn about the history of the earth, it is the bible of our natural history, chronicling our time on earth. The archive doesn’t just contain chemical information on our atmosphere, it also contains the earliest life forms we had on earth: ancient microorganisms in the form of bacteria, fungi, and viruses. We think of history as something that is gone, its past is for us to learn from but not live in, however, this ice archive contains life, frozen in time.

This function of this archive is supremely important in the current political climate. In one of our first classes we learned how “epistemology” became a prominent word as the new presidential administration controversially questioned climate change and started to remove data and even the phrase itself from government websites. A few different online archives for this data were started by professors, professionals, and concerned citizens to create a space for information the government was trying to suppress. Here, again, we see the importance of the archive as a place where lost information is found. NICL’s ice collection is the hard evidence in a case against climate change.

The content of the ice archive is essential for our understanding of earth’s atmospheric history. Within the archived ice are layers, like tree rings, that contain information about each era of our environment. Because the snow and ice never melts, each year a new layer was added on top of the old one, preserving the chemical make-up of the world. The ice was creating its own earthly archive.

Per Fredrik Scholander was the scientist who figured out that air trapped in ice was preserved. From Burnett’s description, he seemed like a fascinating member of scientific history. Burnett used the words “cowboy-scientist” and worked with other scientists who studied “life at the edges of death.” Working on another project in the Artic, Scholander heard that dogs were vomiting up fish because they were still alive in their stomachs, after eating them frozen. This led him to working with gnat larvae that were previously frozen, but then when thawed, were alive and well. He then realized that ice preserved the atmospheric air and was, therefore an archive of our natural past. All of this reminded me of Jurassic Park. It seems silly, but the way dinosaurs were brought back to life was because there was a small mosquito that was preserved in the layers of the earth and it has the missing dinosaur DNA. Hollywood took a giant leap into the simplistically absurd, but the idea was rooted in the work Scholander did to discover the invaluable information ice contained in its natural archive.

The organization of this archive has a commonality with most other archives, it needs to function at its best to preserve what is in it. The ice is stored in a freezer that is 55,000 cubic feet at -36 Celsius. In watching this YouTube video about the archive, I learned how sensitive the ice is to any outside elements (like potato chips!) and how important the back-up system is to an archive that needs to stay frozen.

From the reading, we know that this isn’t the only ice archive, but the unique characteristic of NICL is that it allows researchers and citizens to access its collection, through a vetting process of course. While this ice archive is mostly for scientists, granting access to citizens through videos, press, its website, and tours of the actual archive help the larger public understand the importance of its function and the larger scientific purpose it serves.

Learning more about NICL helped expand my own idea of the archive. I have walked through natural collections at museums, I have thought about scientists collecting rocks, soil, sediment, and bugs for study. I haven’t thought of these scientists as archivists, but they are. They are putting together collections that aren’t made of content by humans, but of earthly content. Their organization and selection of these archives could determine how future generations understand a rapidly changing earth. The importance of this during a time of global temperature rise cannot be overlooked.

This archive and others like it, that are preserving the earth’s content makes me think of other “natural” archives like fossils. The earth has its own way of preserving data so we can learn about our past. Now we are also seeing that biologics and the natural world could be a way for  us to archive our human-made culture and data through DNA archives. It has showed me that the natural world and archives are more connected than I ever thought they were.




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