Florida State University's sediment core collection includes samples taken from under the Ross Ice Shelf in Antarctica.

Free to a good home: more than 23 kilometres of skinny tubes of dirt. With them comes a half-century of Antarctic geological history.

The US National Science Foundation (NSF) is looking for a new place to store its Antarctic marine-sediment cores, the world's biggest collection of environmental records from the Southern Ocean. The cores have lain on shelves at Florida State University in Tallahassee since 1963. But last year, the university told the NSF that it no longer wanted to host the collection. Ideas for where the Antarctic Marine Geology Research Facility might move to are due by 3 August.

“This area of research is not a priority for the current faculty,” says Gary Ostrander, vice-president for research at Florida State. “It doesn’t make sense to continue to support that size facility.” The NSF contributes roughly US$280,000 per year, but the university has to pay for overhead costs such as air conditioning for the 930-square-metre building.

The invaluable collection includes cores that were taken half a century ago by the USS Eltanin — the first ice-strengthened US research vessel in Antarctic waters — as well as material gathered in the 2000s by the international ANDRILL programme, which revealed the history of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet over the past 17 million years.

Freezer burn

The transfer is a blow for Sherwood Wise, a geologist at Florida State and the facility's principal investigator. “It’ll be a sad day for me,” he says. “This has been a marvellous resource for the university.”

In the early 1960s, a Florida State geologist who was also a naval officer volunteered to host the first deep-sea cores coming back from the fledgling US Antarctic programme. The university built a one-storey building for them on its palm-tree-lined campus. The cores are split in half, labelled, sampled and preserved in perpetuity. Dozens of researchers from around the world visit the collection every year to study palaeoclimate and other clues buried within the sediments. (Ice cores from the US Antarctic programme are stored elsewhere, in a freezer in Denver, Colorado.)

Sediment cores have helped to reveal conditions in West Antarctica going back 17 million years.

Over the years, more and more cores have accumulated, from more than 90 research cruises. Studies of the samples have triggered hundreds of publications on all aspects of Southern Ocean and Antarctic history. Some of them have inspired follow-up cruises by other deep-sea drilling expeditions.

Curating these older materials is vital because Antarctic samples are so expensive and difficult to gather, says Philip Bart, a marine geologist at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge. “The facility is critical to ongoing research,” he says.

Core concern

In the late 2000s, the building began to run out of space for all the cores. Wise applied for and got an NSF grant to install mobile shelving to accommodate more samples. But he is retiring this year, and university administrators have told the NSF that the facility will have to move elsewhere.

The transfer is part of a natural evolution of core curation, says Frank Rack, a marine geologist at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln who is executive director for the ANDRILL programme. For instance, the various generations of ocean-drilling research programmes have consolidated their collections over the years and established international centres for long-term storage. “Many people care deeply about these cores and samples,” he says.

Wherever and whenever the Florida cores move, Wise estimates that it will take around $2 million just to pack them up and ship them. There are no major drilling projects planned in the next few years for the US Antarctic programme, which means that there is no big influx of cores expected in the near future.

Even once the cores are gone, Florida State will still have one big NSF-funded crown jewel. A few kilometres away from the Antarctic core facility is the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, for which Florida State beat out the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during a national competition in 1990.