UK Relic Air Extraction and Gas Analysis System (UK RArE-GAS)

Lead Research Organisation: British Antarctic Survey
Department Name: Science Programmes


The rise in atmospheric CO2, caused largely by the burning of fossil fuel, is the most important factor driving the recent change in our planet's climate. Direct measurements of atmospheric CO2 only started in the 1950s - so how do we know that the rise in atmospheric CO2 is unprecedented? To look into the past we use a unique geologic archive: the bubbles of air trapped in ice cores from the polar ice sheets.

Ice cores from specially selected sites, can yield, detailed yearly records for recent centuries, or records spanning the last 800 thousand years (the time that anatomically modern humans first appeared). Uniquely among natural archives of change, ice cores contain samples of the three major greenhouses gases (carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide) captured a little after the snow fell, and an isotopic record of atmosphere temperature. Ice cores thus provide the most compelling evidence that the changing concentration of greenhouse gases is driving natural climate change, which has taken the planet through many cycles of glaciation and warmth.

In coming years, ice cores will answer key questions.
1) What is the lag between rising greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations and global temperature?
2) Why did the Earth enter a regular cycle of glacial to interglacial transitions 500 thousand years ago that dominated planetary change until the industrial era?
3) How did the higher than pre-industrial concentrations of GHG affect our planet in the last interglacial period 120 thousand years ago?

Existing and planned ice cores, collected from Antarctica, Greenland and high-mountain glaciers, are a unique window into the past changes in the atmosphere. Providing crucial data to drive and test computer models exploring how and why climate changed in the past. This in turn informs projections of how the climate will change in the future.

We propose to develop a facility, UK-RArE-GAS, at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), to help scientists from around the UK, and their collaborators, to extract and analyse ancient air samples from ice. The custom system will incorporate an extraction method, facilities to ensure proper stewardship of these precious ancient air samples, and analysis with a novel laser spectrometer. No such facility is currently available in the UK, and this limits our scientists to collaborating and paying for analyses in one or two laboratories in the EU or US.

UK-RArE-GAS will be augmented into the existing ice core laboratory at BAS, the centre of ice core science in the UK and a leader in the international community. The existing ice core lab hosts a large laboratory freezer, state-of-the-art ice chemistry instrumentation (ICP-mass spectrometry and Fast-ion chromatography), and a continuous flow analysis system to measure a suite of chemistry and stable water isotopes in ice. BAS also provides a suite of rapid-access, shallow, intermediate and deep ice-core drills that are widely used by the UK community and our collaborators. The innovative 'gas-line' will considerably enhance the existing capabilities, providing an unparalleled capability to UK science. Dr Thomas Bauska, who joined BAS as a Royal Society Fellow has direct experience in development of similar ice-core gas methods, and will oversee design and development of the facility.

The UK-RArE-GAS laboratory will create a centre for collaboration among UK and International partners who can use the laboratory to extract gases in glacial ice samples.

Planned Impact

Scientific impact: Geochemistry research is currently undergoing a transformation, as laser-based techniques supplant traditional gas-source isotope ratio mass spectrometers. These instruments promise lower costs and increased throughput, primarily through ease-of-use. Ice core science has been an early-adopter of new technologies and has often collaborated with industry to develop bespoke applications. At the UK-RArE-GAS laboratory, we will be able to use our state-the-art laser spectrometer to analyse ultra-small gas samples, placing the UK at the cutting-edge of method development. Our work may lay the groundwork for adoption by other fields of Earth Science requiring isotopic measurements on very small samples (e.g. carbonates). The number and diversity of collaborations and the quality of scientific outputs determine the asset impact. Publication metrics (impact factors and citations), academic beneficiaries engagement and media output will provide a measure of our impact.

Social or economic benefits: For more than a decade, the BAS ice core lab has been a key component in UK efforts to engage and inform key audiences on climate change. Several thousand individuals have visited our labs including royalty, politicians (science ministers), opinion formers (popstars and celebrities) and international media teams. The combination of science and the experience provided by holding ancient ice has proved compelling. Feedback has shown it caused many to strengthen or alter their opinions about climate change, and many have been galvanized to action. The experience has been a long-standing feature offered by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership program to high-level business leaders. Currently we host more than three visits per week, but the impetus provided by investment in the UK-RaRE GAS facility will ensure the message remains fresh and potent for the next decade and beyond.

Potential beneficiaries: UK-RArE-GAS will support a wide range of research outputs benefitting UK and international networks. Collaborative and international is a feature of ice-core research. Data from ice core analyses are widely shared through international databases and commonly used by researchers working across the environmental science disciplines.

With a state-of-the-art gas line in BAS, and increasing collaboration between BAS and University of Cambridge (Earth Sciences), researchers from around the world will be drawn to this hub. Providing opportunities for enhanced participation of UK scientists in globally significant research projects such as the "Beyond EPICA - Oldest Ice" programme. Indeed, it is very likely that UK-RArE-GAS will be selected to analyse the very oldest sections of this new ice core - a major coup for UK science to be delivering some of the most prominent palaeoclimatic research of a generation. In addition, UK-RaRE GAS will provide training to the group of PDRAs and PhD students who are currently working in the lab, including NERC funded DTP students. Data from UK-RaRE GAS, will not only provide definitive histories of greenhouse gas concentrations, but also provide an invaluable resource for the climate modelling community. Enabling testing and validation of IPCC global climate models tasked with predicting future climate change and greatly improving our understanding of the global carbon cycle.
Description The laboratory and the ice samples have been used to help engage public interest in climate change. Notably, media engagement during pre-COP26 events.
First Year Of Impact 2021
Sector Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections
Impact Types Societal,Policy & public services

Description Antarctic Science Bursary
Amount £5,890 (GBP)
Organisation Antarctic Science 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 04/2020 
End 03/2022
Description Continuous-depth analysis of soluble greenhouse gases in ice cores
Amount £78,726 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/X011348/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2023 
End 01/2024
Description LASER-ENVI - A LASER spectrometer-based ENVIronmental Gas and Gas-Isotope Facility
Amount £884,149 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/V015435/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2021 
End 02/2023
Description Sea Ice and Westerly winds during the Holocene in coastal Antarctica, to better constrain oceanic CO2 uptake
Amount £818,215 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/W001535/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 03/2022 
End 02/2027
Description Oregon State University Interlab Comparison Study 
Organisation Oregon State University
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We have an ongoing exchange and inter-comparison study with the ice core lab at Oregon State (PI Ed Brook). Postdoc Amy King recently completed a data collection campaign at the Oregon State Lab as part of her Antarctic Science Bursary grant using ice provide my project partner Eric Wolff.
Collaborator Contribution Our colleagues at Oregon State have welcomed into the lab and provided staff members to assist in all aspects of data collection.
Impact EGU Poster: EGU22-2075 The Little Ice Age CO2 drop:  Natural, Anthropogenic or Artefact?  by Amy King et al. Session CL1.2.5 - The state-of-the-art in ice coring sciences
Start Year 2020
Description University of Cambridge 
Organisation University of Cambridge
Country United Kingdom 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution We provide a shared facility for ice core gas research for University of Cambridge researchers, including two PIs (Eric Wolff and Rachael Rhodes), one PDRA (Chris Nehrbass-Ahles) and one PhD student (Ivo Strawson) along with some undergraduates. We work on various projects in close collobration as we are essentially one research team.
Collaborator Contribution PI Rhodes has provided a bespoke laser spectrometer to measure methane and carbon monoxide. PhD student Strawson has perfected a method of extracting the ice core analysis for the aforementioned laser spectrometer. Postdoc Nehbrass-Ahles has developed from the ground up a system for measuring the total amount of air trapped in the ice core. PI Eric Wolff has provided crucial ice core samples for various project in the lab.
Impact EGU Poster Abstract EGU22-9210 A high-accuracy Total Air Content setup: System performance and first results from Skytrain Ice Rise, Antarctica by Christoph Nehrbass-Ahles et al. Session CL1.2.5 - The state-of-the-art in ice coring sciences
Start Year 2019
Description University of Grenoble High-Resolution Laser Spectrometry 
Organisation University of Grenoble
Country France 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution Through PI Rachael Rhodes at the University of Cambridge we are studying the pre-industrial history of carbon monoxide and methane.
Collaborator Contribution Xavier Fain and Roberto Grilli have provided a laser spectrometer to the lab and kindly assisted during troubleshooting.
Impact Upcoming abstract submission to the International Partnership in Ice Core Sciences
Start Year 2020
Description Air extraction for COP26 exhibition 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Extraction of an air sample for inclusion in an ice-core sculpture at the COP26 event in Glasgow, 2021, a collaboration between science and art. The extraction was filmed for distribution on social media channels. The sculpture was open to public exhibition over multiple days.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Broadcast from the lab 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact ITV East Anglia, climate special
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021
Description Official pre-COP26 events 
Form Of Engagement Activity A broadcast e.g. TV/radio/film/podcast (other than news/press)
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact High profile media engagement as part of the official pre-COP26 events. Presenting ice core CO2 records for delegates, plus considerable media engagement with national and international TV networks.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021