University of Alberta geologist Martin Sharp examines an ice core.

University of Alberta/Ian Jackson for Alberta

Unique Canadian ice core collection suffers catastrophic meltdown

A precious collection of ice cores from the Canadian Arctic has suffered a catastrophic meltdown. A freezer failure at a cold storage facility in Edmonton run by the University of Alberta (UA) caused 180 of the meter-long ice cylinders to melt, depriving scientists of some of the oldest records of climate change in Canada’s far north.

The 2 April 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.”

The melted cores represented 12.8% of the collection, which held 1408 samples taken from across the Canadian Arctic. The cores hold air bubbles, dust grains, pollen, and other evidence that can provide crucial information about past climates and environments, and inform predictions about the future.

The storage facility is normally chilled to –37°C. But the equipment failure allowed temperatures to rise to 40°C, melting tens of thousands of years of history. Among the losses: some of the oldest ice cores from Mount Logan, a 5595-meter-high mountain in northern Canada. “We only lost 15 meters [of core], but because it was from the bottom of the core, that’s 16,000 years out of the 17,700 years that was originally represented,” Sharp says.

Scientists also lost 66 meters of core from Baffin Island’s Penny Ice Cap, which accounts for 22,000 years—a quarter of the record. That leaves “a gap for the oldest part, which is really the last glaciation before the warming that brought us into the present interglacial,” Sharp says.

The collection—officially known as the Canadian Ice Core Archive — has a complicated history. Many of the cores were collected in the 2000s, flown to Whitehorse, Yukon Territory, and then trucked nearly 5500 kilometers to the Ice Core Research Laboratory at the Geological Survey of Canada in Ottawa. After the federal government shifted its research priorities, the collection was orphaned and recently moved to the Edmonton lab.

Replacing the lost cores would be difficult, Sharp says. Each would cost between $500,000 and $1 million to replace, because of the difficult logistics associated with operating in the remote Arctic.