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Exploring Paleoclimatology in the Classroom using Vostok Ice Core Data

Access Vostok Ice Core Data from NOAA's Paleoclimatology Resource
The webpage was created for SERC by Heather Rissler in consultation with Bruce Bauer, Data Manager, WDC for Paleoclimatology.
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The Dataset

The Vostok research station is located near the center of the Antarctic ice sheet (78°S 106°E). Ice core samples taken at the Vostok station are used to collect data on historical carbon dioxide levels. The data consist of measurements of the percentage of atmospheric gasses, such as CO2 in fossil air bubbles that have been trapped in snow flakes and compressed into ice over 400,000 years old. Data are archived at NOAA's World Data Center for Paleoclimatology and represents geochemical data spanning 3,623 meters and over 400,000 years.

Use and Relevance

Ice core sample from Greenland; photo taken by Mark Twickler.
The Vostok station represents a collaboration between Russian, US, and French scientists. Ice cores taken from the Vostock station contain a record of atmospheric gas composition. Measurements of 'fossil' air trapped in bubbles in ice cores allow scientists to reconstruct historical fluctuations in green house gasses, such as CO2. Measurements made on ice cores taken from the Vostok station provide a pre-historical record of CO2 variations, providing a natural baseline that can be compared to current CO2 levels (380 ppm) that are influenced by human activity. Studies of ice cores also provide a history of glacial cycles and ancient fluxations in atmospheric gas composition, with CO2 levels ranging from 180 ppm during periods of lower temperatures to 280 ppm during warmer periods. Measurements of isotopes, such as deuterium, are also used as a proxy for temperature.

Use in Teaching

This dataset can be used to teach the following topics and skills in geochemistry and paleoclimatology:

Graph illustrating fluctuations in deuterium and carbon dioxide measured from Vostok ice core samples, from Barnola et al,Nature, 329, 408-414 (1987) .


  • Methods for reconstructing historical climate change
  • Ice ages and glacial cycles
  • The use isotopic data as a proxy for temperature or age
  • Global warming


  • Using data to make graphs illustrating atmospheric changes over time
  • Using mathmatical proccessing of datasets to determine relationships between temperature and CO2 levels
  • Comparing data from independent experiments to evaluate the relationship between carbon dioxide levels and temperature
  • Using proxy data to create visual representations of glacial cycles
    Starting Point describes an activity that uses Vostok Ice core data to recreate temperature from deuterium data.

Exploring the Data

Data Type and Presentation

Raw data are available in HTML tabular format for Vostok Ice core samples over a 400,000 year period. Available data include deuterium concentrations, oxygen isotope compositions, isotopic composition of O2 and N2, N20 levels and isotopic composition, sodium ion concentrations, CO2 and methane levels, and 14C concentrations.

Accessing the Data

Users can choose a specific dataset of interest (such as methane levels) and download data in HTML tabular format (often from several different scientific sources).

Manipulating Data and Creating Visualizations

  • One way that students can proccess the data is to import raw data (provided in HTML tabular format) into a spreadsheet application such as Excel. Graphs could be generated to examine temporal changes in CO2 concentrations. Calculations can also be made to estimate temperature using deuterium concentrations, as described in the Starting Point Vostok Ice Core Activity. Linear regression analyses could be performed to determine whether there is a statistically significant relationship between CO2 levels and temperature.
  • The Ice Core Gateway has a web-based browse and visualization tool, WebMapper, that can be used to create graphs. To use this feature, users can click on a geographic region and research station of interest. A pull down menu allows users to choose a measurement of interest (such as oxygen isotope or CO2 levels), which can be downloaded in HTML tabular format and in some cases directly plotted.

Tools for Data Manipulation

  • The Starting Point site provides a tutorial for using Excel.
  • The Ice Core Data Gateway provides information on using WebMapper.

About the Data

Collection Methods

Ice core samples are obtained by drilling a long cylinder of ice (approximately 5 inches in diameter). The core is separated into 5 meter long segments and stored for further analyses. Electrical measurements are performed and stratigraphy is analyzed. Ice from the core is melted to measure the percentage of CO2 and various chemical techniques such as mass spectrometry and gas chromatography are used to analyze isotopic composition.

Limitations and Sources of Error

Sources of error in reconstructing climate history using ice core data include determining age of the ice and correcting for gas exchange in snow prior to trapping of gas within bubbles enclosed in the compressed ice. Given the current understanding of glacial cycles, dating determined by techniques such as flow and compression modelling or using deuterium as a proxy for age yield robust measurements.

References and Resources

Scientific References that Use this Dataset

There are several research articles that describe the CO2 record of the Vostok Ice Core data:

Education Resources that Use this Dataset

  • Starting Point describes an activity that uses Vostok Ice core data to recreate temperature from deuterium data.
  • The WDC for Paleoclimatology maintains an education and outreach page with information on paleoclimatology, including an interactive Climate TimeLine Information Tool.

Other Related Scientific References

Other related Education Resources

Related Links

  • The NOAA website contains a collection of Paleo Perspectives on global climate change. Each 'Perspective' provides informative background content on climate change, access to relevant data, and links to relevant research articles and websites.
  • The Law Dome Ice Core dataset from NOAA provides similar data on atmospheric gasses in the Antarctic.
  • CO2 data for the past 50 years are available for the Mauna Loa record from Hawaii and can be compared to Ice Core data.