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Environmental changes recorded in an Andean glacier during the last 500 years

Research Scholar

Chiara Uglietti, Byrd Polar Research Center (Italy)
Paolo Gabrielli, Co-Researcher
Lonnie G Thompson, Faculty Mentor


Chiara Uglietti received her master's in environmental sciences in 2002 from the University of Milano Bicocca, Italy and studied the chemical composition of an ice core from the Italian Alps. She earned her PhD in climate and environmental physics from the University of Bern, Switzerland in 2009, and worked on atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide observations to comprehend the partitioning of carbon dioxide between biosphere and ocean and to assess carbon sources and sinks. Her current research at Ohio State focuses on trace metal analysis of an ice core from the Quelccaya ice cap in Peru in order to constrain the past environmental variability in the Peruvian Andes, and to assess past atmospheric pollution due to metals exploitation.

What is the issue or problem addressed in your research?

My research interests are mainly related to understand the earth's climate system and its response to natural and mankind induced variations. My goal is to reconstruct past climate variability in order to understand interactions among components of the global earth's system (atmosphere, ocean and biosphere).

The recent increase in the levels of trace elements (such as chromium, copper, zinc, lead, bismuth and uranium) even in remote polar snow has provided convincing evidence of human impact on the global atmosphere. Indeed emissions from industry, road traffic, domestic heating have affected the global biogeochemical cycle of many trace elements. As, some of these are important micronutrients, becoming toxic above certain thresholds, damaging terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, thus it is extremely important to study the past processes of trace-metal deposition from the atmosphere at global and also at regional scale in order to effectively protect the environment.

Trace elements as well as other compounds in the atmosphere are deposited with the snow on glaciers surfaces and are buried by the subsequent snowfalls, year after year. Ice cores, cylinders of ice drilled out of glaciers and polar ice sheets, are precious natural recorders of ice layers containing uninterrupted, detailed depositional histories of atmospheric compounds emitted during hundreds or even thousands of years.

What methodology did you use in your research?

In the framework of the Byrd Polar Fellowship, my research focuses on studying the trace elements composition of an ice core retrieved from a high altitude ice cap in the tropical Andes (Quelccaya, Peru) with the aim of generating high-resolution records of past pollutants deposition linked to ancient human emissions of toxic metals (copper, cadmium, lead, zinc and many more) over the last 500 years.

What are the purpose/rationale and implications of your research?

We hope to reconstruct for instance long histories of lead and mercury emitted by processes linked to smelting of silver mining in South America.