An international team of scientists will transport ice from the glacier on Bolivia's Mt. Illimani, the country's second-highest peak, to Antarctica with the aim of preserving its climatological "memory" - that is, the valuable information about the past contained therein and which is now threatened by climate change.
"The glacier is a trove of information," one of the coordinators of the international Ice Memory project, Patrick Ginot, who also heads the French Research and Development Institute (IRD) in Bolivia, told EFE.
Glaciers accumulate caps of snow for thousands of years and, in Illimani's case, that compressed snowcap - now ice - dates back 18,000 years, meaning that it is a vast source of layered information about past climate conditions.
The conservation effort is part of a project administered by France's Grenoble Alpes University, which last August removed ice from the top of Mont Blanc. In May, a team of 12 scientists of different nationalities will arrive in Bolivia to undertake a similar mission with Andean snow and ice.
Ginot said that, in research done in recent years using extractions from - and perforations of - the snowcap, scientists have managed to decipher "some of this information," but the technology still doesn't exist to be able to read it all and "the characteristics (of the glacier) could be lost" along with the information contained in the ice.
The Ice Memory organizers want their first two efforts to set an example for work of this type and for research groups in other countries to take the initiative because the cave that is being created in Antarctica to store the Illimani snow and ice is "large enough to house samples from 50 sites."
Antarctica is the "best freezer for long-term storage" of chunks of material from glaciers, thus providing scientists with a database for the future, the scientist said.
In Bolivia, the project will focus on Illimani, located about 50 miles from La Paz and whose peak rises to 21,200 feet above sea level.
Six-person teams will alternate over three weeks to drill into the glacier all the way down to the mountain's stone beneath to extract three ice core samples that will be split into segments 3.28 feet long and sent by boat to Grenoble, France.
One of the core samples will be examined and tested to extract all the information possible with current technology in cooperation with a team of Bolivian scientists.
The other two ice core samples will be held until 2020 in France until the Antarctic cave is prepared where the frozen samples of different glaciers around the planet will be able to be preserved for centuries, if need be.
"We have the chance to reconstruct the pollution emissions from La Paz going back hundreds of years," Ginot said as an example of what the core samples might reveal, although they could also reveal other aspects of past climate conditions, including helping date volcanic eruptions, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels and other things.
"In any case, the small (Bolivian) glaciers at an altitude of less than 5,500 meters are going to disappear completely in the next 20 years," he said, adding that "our idea is to take out the samples as quickly as possible because we know that another El Niño year could be even stronger" thus melting the glacial ice even faster than is presently occurring.