Sulphuric acid at grain boundaries in Antarctic ice


It has been suggested1,2 that acids in the cold polar ice sheets may exist as aqueous mixtures at grain boundaries. This assumption can correctly predict the d.c. conductivity of polar ice2, but this does not prove the existence of acids or liquid veins at grain boundaries, and this remains controversial3–5. In this study we used a scanning electron microscope (SEM), equipped with a cold stage and an energy-dispersive X-ray microanalysis facility, to determine the location of sulphur in ice from the Antarctic Peninsula. As expected, sulphur was undetectable in the bulk of the ice. However, at the junctions where three grains met (triple-junctions), sulphur was found in concentrations greater than 1 M in areas of < 1 μm2. Calculations show that between 40 and 100% of the sulphuric acid present in this ice was found at the triple-junctions, and would have been liquid at ice-sheet temperatures. This finding, if general, has considerable implications for many of the physical properties of polar ice.

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Mulvaney, R., Wolff, E. & Oates, K. Sulphuric acid at grain boundaries in Antarctic ice. Nature 331, 247–249 (1988).

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