A Historical Ice Core from the Heart of Europe

In 2013, a joint venture of the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, and the SoHP retrieved a 73-meter (240ft) ice core from Colle Gnifetti in the Swiss Alps.  Analysis of the ice core, at the Climate Change Institute, is producing invaluable new data about climate change and human-climate interactions from the last ca. 2,000 years. Concurrently, Harvard historians are combing pre-industrial written records to create a new geo-database of climate events, which complements the scientific data. 

As documented here, a seven-person team from the Climate Change Institute, the Institut für Umweltphysik, University of Heidelberg (Germany) and the Physics Institute, University of Bern (Switzerland), recovered the ice core over the course of one week at the Colle Gnifetti (CG) glacier saddle of the Monte Rosa Massif (4450 m.a.s.l.).  It will be analyzed using a host of technologies not available when previous CG cores were drilled and featuring a path-breaking collaboration of humanists and scientists.

To this end the University of Maine and Harvard University will contribute ultra-high-resolution measurements of dust and other impurities using state-of-the-art laser based technology developed in the Climate Change Institute’s W. M. Keck Laser Ice Facility at the Climate Change Institute and a new historical geodatabase of the climate of pre-modern Europe from written sources, collected and analyzed at Harvard.

The resulting records will allow the first detailed, ice core-based assessment of human-climate interactions during the last two millennia. The new technology is minimally destructive and will allow the permanent preservation of the new ice core record. The project is supported by a grant from the Arcadia Foundation.

Evaluation of this unique archive will also involve researchers from Alfred-Wegener-Institute, Bremerhaven (Germany) and the Department of Geosciences, University of Fribourg (Switzerland), and the University of Nottingham, (U.K.).

On Nov. 11, 2015, The CCI-SoHP team presented preliminary results at a signature event at Harvard University.

drillsite   drilling

Photos by Nicole Spaulding


Dr. Nicole Spaulding describes how laser ablation extracts ancient
ice particles for mass spectrometry of chemical signals of
climate change from the SoHP Colle Gnifetti Historical Ice Core

The project is generously supported by:

Arcadia Fund of London
W. M. Keck Foundation                       National Science Foundation


Alexander More et al., "The role of historical context in understanding past climate, pollution and health data in trans-disciplinary studies," GeoHealth (AGU), 2, 162-170 (2018), DOI:10.1029/2017GH000121.

Pascal Bohleber et al., "Temperature and mineral dust variability recorded in two low-accumulation Alpine ice cores over the last millennium," Climate of the Past, 14, 21-37 (2018), https://doi.org/10.5194/cp-14-21-2018

Nicole Spaulding et al., "A New Multielement Method for LA-ICP-MS Data Acquisition from Glacier Ice Cores," Environmental Science and Technology, 51.22, 13282–13287 (2017) DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.7b03950

Alexander More, et al., "Next Generation Ice Core Technology Reveals True Minimum Natural Levels of Lead (Pb) in the Atmosphere: Insights from the Black Death,"  GeoHealth (AGU), 1, 211-219 (2017) (DOI: 10.1002/2017GH000064)

Matthew Luongo et al., Possible Icelandic Tephra Found in European Colle Gnifetti Glacier, G-Cubed (AGU), 18.11 (2017) (DOI: 10.1002/2017GC007022)

Sharon Sneed et al., "New LA-ICP-MS cryocell and calibration technique for sub-millimeter analysis of ice cores," Journal of Glaciology, 61.226, 233-242 (2015) doi: 10.3189/2015JoG14J139.


"We've been poisoning ourselves for the last 2000 years," The Guardian.

"A 14th-century plague helped reveal just how long humans have polluted the planet," Popular Science Magazine.

"An ice core reveals how profoundly the Black Death change society," Forbes Magazine.

"Humans Polluted the Air Much Earlier than Previously Thought," Smithsonian Magazine.

"L'homme rejette du plomb dans l'atmosphère depuis au moins 2000 ans," Science et Vie.

"Human Activity Has Polluted European Air for 2000 Years," Eos (American Geophysical Union).

"Europe's Lead Pollution Dropped to Zero Only Once in the Last 2000 Years: And All it Took Was the Black Death," Atlas Obscura.

"Die Bleizeit," [The Lead Age] Süddeutsche Zeitung.

"Humans are to blame for lead pollution: Study of glacial ice reveals the toxin was not present in the air when industry was brought to a standstill by the Black Death," Daily Mail.

"Harvard Study Challenges Assumptions of Natural Lead Levels," Harvard Gazette.

"Die größte Wirtschaftskatastrophe der Geschichte," Der Spiegel.

"Die Sünden der Alten," Frankfurter Allgemein.

"Le plomb: une pollution ancienne," Journal de l'Environnement

"Bleigehalt: Nur die Pest sorgte für saubere Luft," Der Standard.

"Analyse van ijskern onthult de waarheid over lood: "We zijn onszelf al 2.000 jaar aan het vergiftigen" [Analysis of ice core reveals the truth about lead: we've been poisoning ourselves for the last 2000 years] De Morgen.

"SoHP and Climate Change Institute Awarded $.5M Arcadia Grant for Historical Ice Core Project," Harvard Gazette.

"The Science of History," Harvard Magazine, March-April 2016.

"Climate Data Suggests Famine Worsened the Black Death," Archaeology, January 07, 2016.

"Did Climate Change Worsen the Black Death," Harvard Gazette, January 5, 2016.

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Executive Committee

Paul Mayewski Climate Change Institute

Prof. Paul A. Mayewski

Director & Distinguished Maine Professor, Climate Change Institute
School of Earth & Climate Sciences; School of Marine Sciences; School of Policy and International Affairs
University of Maine
Michael McCormick Harvard Science of the Human Past

Prof. Michael McCormick

Chair, Initiative for the Science of the Human Past
Goelet Professor of Medieval History
Co-Director, Max Planck Harvard Center for the Archaeoscience of the Ancient Mediterranean
Alexander More

Prof. Alexander More

Research associate (History Department, Harvard) - Assistant Research Professor (Climate Change Institute, UMaine)

Alexander More (PhD, Harvard) is a historian whose research focuses on the impact of climate change on population health and the economy....

Read more about Alexander More

ICP Research Group

Heather Clifford

Heather Clifford

MS student - research assistant
Climate Change Institute, University of Maine

Mark Royer

Ph.D. Candidate
Climate Change Institute, University of Maine