Claude Lorius, memories in the ice

A precursor in the field of climate warming science, and unstoppable explorer of the very coldest regions of our planet, Claude Lorius was a French glaciologist who spent his life studying the ice to unlock the secrets of the past…
Claude Lorius and Roland Schlich at the entrance to the Charcot base
Claude Lorius and Roland Schlich at the entrance to the Charcot base
© Sidney Emery / Fonds Lorius / CNRS Photothèque
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"Eureka!" Legend has it that the English astronomer, Isaac Newton, saw an apple fall from a tree, inspiring that famous "Eureka" moment which he went on to develop into his universal theory of gravity. French glaciologist, Claude Lorius, had a similar moment of revelation while watching air bubbles escape from a 15,000 year-old ice cube in his glass of whisky.

It was back in 1955 that this climate explorer first set off on his adventures in Antarctica. With his postgraduate degree in Physics under his belt, he answered an ad looking for young researchers to take part in expeditions organised as part of International Geophysical Year (IGY). Two years later, he joined a research programme at the Charcot Station in Adélie Land, in Antarctica, an unknown continent back then. There he spent the winter with two companions, living for nearly a year cut off from the outside world, beneath the ice, with no assistance, seeking to reveal the secrets of the ice cap.

The story of the ice cube in a glass of whisky, which has since gone down in the history of science, gave Claude Lorius the idea that air bubbles trapped in the ice might contain reliable traces of the composition of the Earth’s atmosphere in the past. The question then arises: what if the ice and snow contain climate indicators? The deeper you drill down into the ice, the further back in time, through centuries, through millennia, it would be possible to go to discover information about the Earth’s climate history.

At the time, Claude Lorius was what we would now call a whistleblower. He was one of the first scientists to establish evidence of climate change and warn of the impact that human behaviour has on our environment. Some twenty years after his intuition, analysis of the ice cores from the Soviets’ legendary Vostok station (in the very heart of Antarctica) finally provided scientific proof of climate warming, demonstrating the link between variations in climate and concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

In 1987, Claude Lorius published three papers in Nature which sent shockwaves through the scientific world. In showing the correlation between carbon gas concentrations (such as CO2 and methane) and average temperature rises, Lorius was the first scientist to provide proof of man’s part in causing climate warming.

A passionate, modest researcher, determined to share his scientific discoveries as widely as possible, and a keen advocate for major environmental causes, Claude Lorius’ career spans 40 years, including 22 expeditions, adding up to a total of six years out on fieldwork campaigns!

Winner of the CNRS Médaille d’Or (Gold Medal) in 2002, and a member of France’s Académie des Sciences, Claude Lorius set up the Laboratory of Glaciology and Environmental Geophysics in Grenoble (France).

Author and co-author of many works, including "Les Glaces de l’Antarctique: une mémoire, des passions" (published by Odile Jacob, 1991), film director Luc Jacquet paid tribute to him in their superb documentary about his life called "La glace et le ciel", first shown at the closing ceremony of the Cannes Film Festival in 2015. Explore our archives to see the fascinating and original works by this extraordinary scientist.

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