Skip navigation

News Story - Science Museum to display Antarctic ice as major new gallery, ‘atmosphere: exploring climate science’, opens

Date: 03 Dec 2010

From 4 December 2010, the Science Museum will be the first and only museum in the UK to display an Antarctic ice core, used by scientists in the study of climate science. The ice core, donated by British Antarctic Survey (BAS), will be displayed in ‘atmosphere… exploring climate science’, a major new gallery opening at the Museum in December.

Ice cores are long cylinders of ice, drilled from the polar ice sheets and contain information about the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere and the related state of the Earth’s climate system stretching back thousands of years. Each ice core contains tiny bubbles of air which can be analysed to determine the levels of tiny quantities of different ‘trace gasses’ present, including carbon dioxide (CO2), when the air was trapped.

Dr Robert Mulvaney OBE, glaciologist at BAS who contributed to the exhibit, said, “Seeing or holding a piece of ice that fell as snowfall, tens, hundreds, or even hundreds of thousands of years ago, and being able to see for yourself the bubbles of ancient air trapped within it, is like travelling back in time and is a significant moment for anyone — including the climate scientists. I have given many talks to scientists and members of the public and witnessed the awe inspiring moment these cores of ice can have on people as they experience them.”

The ice core to be displayed in ‘atmosphere’ includes ice up to 700 years old containing air trapped in the year 1410 CE. It was collected in 1989, as part of a drilling project by the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) and a team from the USA, from a site on the Dyer Plateau, 2002m above sea level. When the ice core was collected the mean temperature on the Dyer Plateau was −21°C. Once collected, the ice core was transported in an insulated box, which was taken from the drilling site by a Twin Otter aircraft to the BAS Rothera Research Station on the Antarctic Peninsula. It was then transported in a freezer container to the BAS headquarters in Cambridge. In the ‘atmosphere’ gallery, the core will be displayed inside a specially adapted medical freezer.

Professor Nick Owens, Director of BAS, said, “I am delighted we have an Antarctic ice core on display at the Science Museum’s new exhibition. Public engagement is a very important activity for BAS and few people get the opportunity to experience an ice core close up — this will enable the many thousands of visitors to learn more about why ice cores have played such an important role in scientists understanding past levels of climate.”

atmosphere: exploring climate science will provide a dedicated space for Science Museum visitors to deepen their understanding of climate science in an enjoyable, engaging and memorable way. A combination of interactive exhibits and a variety of objects will explain how the climate system works, show how scientists study the system and summarise the current state of knowledge about the climate. The gallery will present the findings of climate science. These show that the Earth’s climate is changing, that human actions are the most likely dominant cause and that a major response is required, both to reduce the likelihood of disruptive climate change and to adapt to the change which is already under way. The gallery will illustrate how science and technology can contribute to reducing future human carbon emissions and to making society more resilient to change. It aims to engage and interest those who accept that human-induced climate change is real, as well as those who are unsure and those who do not. The Science Museum will use its long established expertise in science communication to provide information on climate science for everyone, no matter their level of prior knowledge.

Scientists first realised that the climate is sensitive to the greenhouse effect back in the 19th century. ‘atmosphere’ will examine this fact with a collection of objects — including portraits and personal notebooks — highlighting the work of four key 19thCentury pioneers of climate science – Guy Callendar, Jean Baptiste Joseph Fourier, Professor John Tyndall and Svante Arrhenius.

Professor Chris Rapley CBE, Director of the Science Museum said, “Our aim is that the gallery will provide accurate, up-to-date information on what is known about this hugely important subject, and the ways that science, technology and industry can contribute to a positive future.” Set in an immersive ‘gallery world’ with its own atmosphere and landscapes, beautiful, dynamic elements are interconnected to respond to gameplay in ways which echo the Earth’s complex system. Alongside hands-on exhibits, visitors can see objects which bring to life the science and technology behind climate change.

Visitor Information

atmosphere: exploring climate science opens on 4 December 2010.


Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London, SW7 2DD

Open daily 10.00 to 18.00, except 24–26 December / 0870 870 4868


Notes to Editors

The metre-long core in the ‘atmosphere’ gallery comprises three segments:

The first was collected from a depth of 30 metres and dates from 1951. It comes from an area of ice known as the ‘firn’ — porous ice in the upper 50–100m of the ice sheet, where snowfall is consolidating to ice crystals and increasing in density as it is buried. Air percolates through this section and any gas within it will have exchanged with the surrounding air, meaning that it contains the same CO2 levels present in the air today.

The second section comes from a depth of 61m, the lower part of the firn, known as the close-off zone, and dates from 1895. This section is much less porous, leading the air passages which exist in the upper section of the firn to close off to form bubbles. The air within these bubbles dates from around 1980, about ten years before it was collected.

The third section comes from 220m down into the ice sheet and dates from 1330 CE, the trapped air is from 1410. This section is from the ice itself, with no percolation taking place and the air completely locked into the ice. Ice cores have revealed that, during the Earth’s natural ice age cycles, the amount of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere has varied between 180 parts per million (ppm) in an ice age to around 300ppm in a warm period, during which time the Earth’s mean temperature has cooled and warmed by about 5–6 degrees Celsius, and that of the Polar regions by 10 degrees Celsius.

atmosphere: exploring climate science and the accompanying Climate Changing programme have been made possible by support from principal sponsors Shell and Siemens, major sponsor Bank of America Merrill Lynch, major funder the Garfield Weston Foundation, and with additional support from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the Patrons of the Science Museum and members of the Founders Circle: Climate Changingprogramme.

Science Museum

For 100 years the Science Museum has been world-renowned for its historic collection, remarkable galleries and inspirational exhibitions. With around 15,000 objects on public display, the Science Museum’s collections form an enduring record of scientific, technological and medical change from the past few centuries. Aiming to be the best place in the world for people to enjoy science, the Science Museum makes sense of the science that shapes our lives, sparking curiosity, releasing creativity and changing the future by engaging people of all generations and backgrounds in science engineering, medicine, technology, design and enterprise. In 2008/09 the Science Museum was proud to have been awarded the Gold Award for Visitor Attraction of the Year by Visit London and a Silver Award for Large Visitor Attraction of the Year by Enjoy England. The Science Museum works with a number of partners and retains editorial control over all gallery content.