2,000-year-old ice in a freighter

It was the coolest consignment ever handled by the Lufthansa Cargo team at Bremen Airport. 24 boxes with up to 2,000-year-old ice from Antarctica were flown to the US for scientific investigations.


Such freight doesn’t come along every day. As the four pallets with their precious contents were loaded into the pre-cooled containers, some people reached for their cameras and others their mobile phones. Joerg Campsheide, Operations Manager at forwarder DSV, brought his whole team over with him for the photo opportunity. Peter Breuer, outside sales account manager and an “old hand” with 40 years of service at Lufthansa Cargo, captured lots of images for the archive. Handling workers at the airport downed tools for a few minutes and came for a sightseeing tour. Fascination air freight – but what was being boarded to cause all this commotion? The consignor was the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven. Its glaciologists under ice specialist Dr Sepp Kipfstuhl had drilled into an up to 3,000-metre thick ice sheet in Antarctica at the end of 2012 at temperatures of around minus 30 degrees. According to the scientist Dr Kipfstuhl, “ice is a unique climate archive”. Its composition means it is possible for “environmental conditions to be characterised over thousands of years and the prevailing temperatures at the time to be reconstructed”. In fact, the ice at the Earth’s polar caps is only compressed snow. It is compacted into ice under the weight of fresh snowfalls each year.

This results in a layering effect which researchers can use to determine the age of the ice, similar to the annual rings in a tree. The holes drilled by Dr Kipfstuhl’s team during the Antarctic expedition reached depths of up to 200 metres. The ten-centimetre-thick and 200-metre-long ice rods, cut into one-metre pieces for transport, represent the climate going back 2,000 to 2,500 years. It was around then that man began using metals such as copper, lead and iron. With the advent of industrialisation in the second half of the 18th century, increased levels of waste gases also found their way into the atmosphere and thus the ice. According to Dr Kipfstuhl, greenhouse gases in ice cores from Greenland and Antarctica show that CO2 concentrations in the past 800,000 years have never been as high as they are today. They have increased by around 30 per cent in the last 200 years alone.

Dr Kipfstuhl returned with 1,500-metre ice cores from the most recent Antarctic trip. As they are also greatly sought-after by other institutes and the glaciologists at the Alfred Wegener Institute do not have access to all analysis methods, some of the ice cores will be analysed as part of an international cooperation, taking in, for example, Reno in California. In order to meet the requirements of the Bremerhaven-based scientists, a temperature of minus 20 degrees had to be ensured at all times while in transit to California. Lufthansa Cargo had the right hardware at its disposal in the form of the Unicooler RAP. Thanks to a 320-kg box with dry ice, the special container was able to maintain the required temperature along the entire cold chain. Integrated sensors documented the date, time, temperature and atmospheric humidity at the place of departure, during transit and at the final destination. The most important element in such a transport solution was also in place in Bremen – an experienced team from Handling and Sales as well as solid cooperation with the Business Partner DSV. When the news came that the consignment had arrived safely in Reno, even long-time Cargo employee Peter Breuer felt a load lifted from his mind. “Ice-Man” Dr Kipfstuhl also revealed his worst nightmare once the good news had been received: “The cases would be open – and all of that ice from 2,000 years ago would have melted.”

The research lab in Reno is called the “Desert Research Institute”. Dr Kipfstuhl commented with a smile on the fact that ice from Antarctica should be entrusted to scientists in the desert city of Reno in particular: “This is no accident. After all, Antarctica is also a desert.” Only 30 to 50 millimetres of snow falls each year at the southernmost tip of the Earth, compared with 800 millimetres of precipitation per year in Bremerhaven.