Cores are drilled with hand augers (for shallow holes) or powered drills; they can reach depths of over two miles (3.2 km), and contain ice up to 800,000 years old.
The physical properties of the ice and of material trapped in it can be used to reconstruct the climate over the age range of the core.
These data can be combined to find the climate model that best fits all the available data. Coastal areas are more likely to include material of marine origin, such as sea salt ions.
Ice cores have been studied since the early 20th century, and several cores were drilled as a result of the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958).
Depths of over 400 m were reached, a record which was extended in the 1960s to 2164 m at Byrd Station in Antarctica.
An ice core is a core sample that is typically removed from an ice sheet or a high mountain glacier.
Since the ice forms from the incremental buildup of annual layers of snow, lower layers are older than upper, and an ice core contains ice formed over a range of years.
The cuttings (chips of ice cut away by the drill) must be drawn up the hole and disposed of or they will reduce the cutting efficiency of the drill.
The fluid must have a low kinematic viscosity to reduce tripping time (the time taken to pull the drilling equipment out of the hole and return it to the bottom of the hole).
The proportions of different oxygen and hydrogen isotopes provide information about ancient temperatures, and the air trapped in tiny bubbles can be analysed to determine the level of atmospheric gases such as carbon dioxide.
Since heat flow in a large ice sheet is very slow, the borehole temperature is another indicator of temperature in the past.
At Summit Camp in Greenland, the depth is 77 m and the ice is 230 years old; at Dome C in Antarctica the depth is 95 m and the age 2500 years.