Critical porosity of gas enclosure in polar firn independent of climate
Abstract. In order to interpret the paleoclimatic record stored in the air enclosed in polar ice cores, it is crucial to understand the fundamental lock-in process. Within the porous firn, bubbles are sealed continuously until the respective horizontal layer reaches a critical porosity. Present-day firn air models use a postulated temperature dependence of this value as the only parameter to adjust to the surrounding conditions of individual sites. However, no direct measurements of the firn microstructure could confirm these assumptions. Here we show that the critical porosity is a climate-independent constant by providing an extensive data set of micrometer-resolution 3-D X-ray computer tomographic measurements for ice cores representing different extremes of the temperature and accumulation ranges. We demonstrate why indirect measurements suggest a climatic dependence and substantiate our observations by applying percolation theory as a theoretical framework for bubble trapping. The incorporation of our results significantly influences the dating of trace gas records, changing gas-age–ice-age differences by up to more than 1000 years. This may further help resolve inconsistencies, such as differences between East Antarctic δ15N records (as a proxy for firn height) and model results. We expect our findings to be the basis for improved firn air and densification models, leading to lower dating uncertainties. The reduced coupling of proxies and surrounding conditions may allow for more sophisticated reinterpretations of trace gas records in terms of paleoclimatic changes and will benefit the development of new proxies, such as the air content as a marker of local insolation.