Thousands of years of history lost in minutes after ice cores melted

Tareq Haddad
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Thousands of years' worth of the Earth's history has been lost after ice cores from the Canadian Arctic have melted away.

The cores – long cylinders of ice extracted from glaciers – were stored in a custom-built refrigerator costing $3m (£2.38m) at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, until a malfunction meant they rapidly heated up.

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What was once a time capsule of trapped gases and particles that allowed scientists to study previous atmospheres was reduced to a puddle within a matter of minutes.

"For every ice-core facility on the planet, this is their number one nightmare," University of Alberta glaciologist Martin Sharp told the Edmonton Sun.

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"I've had better days, let's say that," he added.

The collection, known as the Canadian Ice Core Archive, included 1.4km of ice core samples – equivalent to 10,000 years of history.

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More than 180 metres was lost in the malfunction, which amounts to 12.8% of the collection.

"When you lose part of an ice core," Sharp told the Guardian, "you lose part of the record of past climates, past environments – an archive of the history of our atmosphere.

"You just don't have easy access to information about those past time periods."

Sharp discovered the melting 45 minutes after it started when a high-heat alarm sounded at the facility. When he arrived, the samples were at 40C.

"It was more like a change room in a swimming pool than a freezer," added Sharp.

Thankfully for researchers, much of the damage was averted because much of the collection was stored in a different facility at the request of a television crew. The Daily Planet had been filming a documentary about the collection and asked if they could be moved in a place with better lighting.

"That's basically what saved us," Sharp said.

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