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Amaelle Landais: reconstructing the climate of the past using ice cores

Researcher portraits Article published on 26 May 2023 , Updated on 27 February 2024

Amaelle Landais is a glaciologist and climatologist at the Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment (LSCE - Univ. Paris-Saclay, CNRS, CEA, UVSQ). She is interested in the climate of the past, which she attempts to reconstruct through the development of instruments and numerous experiments.

After obtaining a scientific baccalaureate with a mathematics option, Amaelle Landais entered the integrated preparatory cycle at the Rennes School of Chemistry in 1995. Then, in 1997, she joined the City of Paris Industrial Physics and Chemistry Higher Educational Institution (ESPCI Paris). In 2001, she completed a DEA (MPhil) in climate sciences at Pierre-et-Marie-Curie University (now Sorbonne University). She defended her thesis in 2004 at the Laboratory for Sciences of Climate and Environment, where she still works today. Its subject was the study of climate variability in Greenland during the last climate cycle, through the study of several ice cores from the North Greenland Ice Core Project (GRIP and NorthGRIP).

Interpretation of ice cores

Amaelle Landais' research field aims to understand the paleoclimate by reconstructing, in particular, the climates of the glacial periods, between 115,000 and 20,000 BC (when large ice caps covered Canada and Scandinavia), and the interglacial periods, between 128,000 and 120,000 years BC (when the polar ice cap of the Northern Hemisphere covered only Greenland, as is the case again today). To achieve this, she has developed methods for measuring the water isotopes (variants of a single element) present in the ice, as well as the nitrogen (N2), oxygen (O2) and argon still trapped in its air bubbles. This allows her to date and interpret the climate signals of the ice cores. "Cores are climate archives that allow the precise dating of variations, even over a year."

From experimentation to student mentoring

Following her PhD thesis, Amaelle Landais did a post-doctoral fellowship at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where she worked on measuring the composition of the three oxygen isotopes in water molecules and applied this to measurements in plants and ice cores. When she returned to France in 2007, she developed an analytical laboratory at the LSCE dedicated to the study of various isotopic geochemical tracers in ice cores, and also formed her research team, notably by training several thesis students. She obtained her Accreditation to Supervise Research (HDR) in 2011. "My field of research is related to current concerns and I meet more and more students who want to go beyond the polar adventure in order to act and understand the climate. I am delighted with their involvement in environmental and climate issues."

The development of new measuring instruments

In 2012, Amaelle Landais was awarded European Research Council funding (ERC Starting Grant) for the COMBINISO project, thanks to which her team developed innovative measurement instruments in partnership with other laboratories. She used these instruments on the two French Dumont d'Urville and Concordia stations in Antarctica, to study ice cores obtained from short drillings (intended for the study of the climate of the last few centuries) and long drillings (measuring more than three km and covering up to 800,000 years before today).

Interpreting a 1.5 million year-old core

The researcher was appointed Director of Research in 2016. She has been involved in a large number of projects at national and European level, such as the Beyond EPICA Oldest Ice project, since 2019, in which she is in charge of the scientific interpretation of the ice core and, more specifically, the study of water isotopes, the gases trapped in the ice and dating. This project, which brings together ten European research laboratories, aims to drill an ice core in Antarctica covering 1,5 million years with the aim of elucidating the role of the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in climate change between 1.2 and 0.9 million years BC.

In 2020, Amaelle Landais led the ITN DEEPICE project, funded by the Marie Skłodowska-Curie programme. The aim of the project was to train 15 thesis students from ten different countries in the development of methods for analysing and interpreting the ice core obtained from the Beyond EPICA project, through the development of new interpretation and measurement methods. "This dynamic is very exciting because it is training a new generation of European researchers in glaciology and climatology."

Experiments in terrestrial and marine environments: interdisciplinary research

In 2019, as part of the ICORDA project, funded by an ERC Consolidator Grant, Amaelle Landais developed innovative dating tools for ice cores and launched an interdisciplinary study (now funded by the CNRS Interdisciplinary Mission), in collaboration with the technical division of the National Institute of Sciences of the Universe (INSU), the Grenoble Interdisciplinary Laboratory of Physics (LiPhy), the company Ap2e and the two CNRS national Ecotrons infrastructures. "We developed instrumented, controlled, automated and multiplexed biological chambers for the study of oxygen fractionation during the biological processes of respiration and photosynthesis for marine and terrestrial ecosystems. We also developed a new instrument that continuously measures the isotopic composition of oxygen in the air using optical spectroscopy." The results of this research were then integrated into climate models to improve the interpretation of ice cores. "This type of interdisciplinary project opens up interesting scientific perspectives in a range of fields such as biology, climate and instrumentation."

Amaelle Landais received numerous awards for this work, such as the Etienne Roth Prize from the French Academy of Sciences in 2011, the Shackleton Medal from INQUA in 2017, the APECS Scientific Mentoring Award and the Award for Scientific Research in Polar and Subpolar Zones from the French Academy of Sciences in 2022.

Linking archives and models

Since 2020, Amaelle Landais has been in charge of the Archives and Trackers Department. This department comprises five teams: Glaccios, where she carries out her work; Paleocean, which studies past climate dynamics based on geochemical measurements in marine sediments; Climag, which develops magnetic measurement techniques for archaeometry or the reconstruction of past ocean circulation; Geotrac, which works on numerous dating techniques and impact geochemistry; and Oceanis, which studies the carbon cycle in coastal areas.

The researcher also manages a number of experimental projects such as field observation, process study, and analytical ice core programmes. She liaises with climate modellers in her laboratory, comparing data from ice archives with data from climate models. Lastly, Amaelle Landais helps to lead the French ice core community, which comprises around 100 scientists whose work requires ice drilling for a range of applications, such as the study of past climate, glaciology and seismography.