Canadian Ice Core Collection Vital For Understanding Climate Change Melts After Lab Freezer Breaks

A precious cache of ice core samples recording thousands of years of climate history has melted after a freezer malfunctioned, officials at the University of Alberta (UA) in Canada revealed on Tuesday.

Officials said that 12.8 percent of the university’s collection melted following the freezer failure at a cold-storage facility at the university’s campus in Edmonton, Alberta.

The samples contained air bubbles, dust grains, and pollens that can give valuable clues about past climates and environments, and be used to inform predictions about future climate trends.

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A failure in both the freezing system and a system designed to monitor temperatures in the storage facility meant that the problem was not registered until firefighters responded to a heat alarm, by which time temperatures had reached 40C and some samples had melted, Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper reported.

The surviving samples were then moved to an adjacent freezer.

The April 2 failure left “pools of water all over the floor and steam in the room,” UA glaciologist Martin Sharp told ScienceInsider. “It was like a changing room in a swimming pool.”


An American scientist inspects cylinders containing Papua glacier ice core samples on its arrival at a freezer storage in Jakarta on July 2, 2010. In North America, more than 12 percent of University of Alberta's ice core samples were destroyed after a refrigeration failure, officials said on Tuesday. Romeo Gacad/AFP/Getty Images

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The samples were taken from glaciers in the northeastern Canadian Arctic and Mount Logan in the Yukon, with some extracted more than 30 years ago. The total collection contains more than 80,000 years of evidence of changes to climate in 1.4 kilometers of ice.

The amount of ice lost represents 12.8 percent of the collection, or about 180 meters of the 1,409 meter collection.

Professor Martin Siegert, Co-Director at the Grantham Institute for Climate Change and Environment at Imperial College London, told Newsweek that the loss of the cores was a “real disappointment” and we will be “less able to understand past climate change as a consequence.”

Ice cores, he said, can “tell us about climate in the past, and we use our knowledge of climate in the past to understand how things can change in the future,” he said, adding that the information in ice cores was vital for recording and understanding climate change.

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He said the samples could cost up to $1 million to replace.

“It’s not impossible to replace them, but I can’t imagine the money will be available to replace them. It’s a loss and it’s not something that can easily be replaced,” he said.

Initially the samples were stored in the Ice Core Research Laboratory at the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa, however federal government funding cuts meant they were moved to the Edmonton lab in 2015.

UA is investigating the causes of the multiple failures that resulted in the incident.

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