Is the gigantic iceberg that broke off the Larsen C ice shelf in Antarctica an ominous sign of climate change–or something that’s happened before?

Ice cores gathered from Antarctica can help scientists answer such crucial questions, but scientists need to know what clues to look for, according to professor Jihong Cole-Dai, head of the Ice Core and Environmental Chemistry Lab at South Dakota State University. For more than 20 years, he has been analyzing the kinds and quantities of chemicals trapped in accumulating polar snow to identify events that have led to global climate change.

Cole-Dai has worked on multiple National Science Foundation-supported ice core projects, including the 2006-2013 West Antarctica Ice Sheet (WAIS) Divide Ice Core project, which involved more than 20 universities and national laboratories. He’s made four trips to Antarctica. The Larsen C ice shelf is a part of the Antarctic Peninsula directly connected to West Antarctica.

 Cole-Dai’s group helped the WAIS Divide project determine that climate change begins in the Artic and moves southward. Cole-Dai and collaborating scientists from France and the University of California-San Diego also found evidence of a large volcanic eruption in 1809 that contributed to global cooling.

“By identifying whether this has happened before and how long ago, scientists can tell whether what’s happening now is out of the ordinary,” he said. “But that won’t be easy.”

Cole-Dai can be reached for comment at (605) 688-4744 or via email at Jihong.Cole-Dai@sdstate.edu. A cell number is available for logged-in reporters.