Science names recovery of ancient ice runner-up for 2017 Breakthrough of the Year – Kurbatov, Mayewski, Spaulding, Clifford

Science named a study co-led by the University of Maine as one of nine runners-up for the 2017 Breakthrough of the Year. In August, researchers at UMaine, in collaboration with Princeton University, announced the recovery of an Antarctic ice core that contained record-setting ice 2.7 million years old — shattering the previous record by 1.7 million years. The captured gasses locked in small bubbles in the ancient ice offers a valuable glimpse of the atmosphere during a pivotal time in Earth’s climate history. According to the announcement, when the ice was frozen, Earth’s first ice ages had just begun. The core may offer clues as to what caused the dramatic climate shifts necessary to trigger the ebb and flow of ice across the surface of the planet. The core was recovered from the Allan Hills, a “blue ice” region situated at a lonely end of the Transantarctic Mountains where glacial flows and harsh winds bring the usually deeply buried ancient ice nearer to the surface. The research team, which included UMaine’s Andrei Kurbatov, Paul Mayewski, Nicole Spaulding and Heather Clifford of the Climate Change Institute and School of Earth and Climate Sciences, hope to return to the site and recover older ice. A 5-million-year-old core could offer a glimpse of what the climate system was like before the ice ages when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and temperatures were higher.

The recovery of ancient ice joins other runners-up, including the discovery of the first new species of great ape since 1929 and the oldest set of Homo sapiens fossils; breakthroughs in cryo-electron microscopy and biology research communication; advances in gene therapy, cancer drugs and in editing DNA and RNA; and new observations of neutrinos using portable detectors. The world’s first observation of a neutron-star merger was awarded Science’s 2017 Breakthrough of the Year.