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17 April 2017

Disaster for Climate Scientists as Precious Ice Cores Melt after Freezer Malfunction

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Ice cores extracted from the frozen regions of our planet can tell us much about the Earth’s history in terms of the climate it experienced over the millennia, as well as the atmospheric composition at the time the ice was frozen. Countless research teams have carried out projects aimed at collecting these precious cores, typically in regions such as Antarctica or Greenland, in a bid to better understand our planet and its climate. After all, with climate change threatening the world as we know it, understanding how our planet will react to changes in climate has never been of more vital importance. A specialist facility now exists to preserve the most precious of these samples of history, but it still comes down to various universities and academic institutions to house them for study; every now and then, this goes wrong.

Sadly, it did go wrong very recently for the climatologists of the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. Just last week, a freezer failure led to the loss of 12.8% of the university’s ice core collection due to partial or complete melting. The loss is considered to be a tragic hit for climate science, as the samples housed within the university’s facility collectively held more than 80,000 years of climate evidence collected over a period of more than 30 years. Around 180 meters of the 1.4km ice core collection was lost.

Surviving samples have been moved to an adjacent freezer while the cause of the failure is investigated.

“When you lose part of an ice core, you lose part of the record of past climates, past environments - an archive of the history of our atmosphere,” glaciologist Martin Sharp, lead researcher for CICA, said in a statement. “You just don’t have easy access to information about those past time periods.

“This incident will affect research, no question. It rules out certain studies that we might have wanted to conduct on the cores, such as reconstructing continuous long-term histories where parts of the cores have been lost or contaminated. We may have to reconsider some of the work we planned to do, but the work can and will continue — and nearly 90 percent of the archive is still intact.”

While the cores and resulting data are not entirely irreplaceable, doing so is not without its hardships and expenses, with expected costs coming in at around $1million.

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.”

“It’s not impossible to replace them,” he added, “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.”

Sam Bonson

Sam is an aspiring novelist with a passion for fantasy and crime thrillers. He is currently working as a content writer, journalist & editor in an attempt to expand his horizons.