The University of Alberta says their Canadian Ice Core Archive (CICA) has had samples damaged after a freezer malfunction on April 2.
The archive is the result of decades of work by researchers gathering samples in the Canadian north that look at water, mineral and energy resources.
The freezer problems are estimated to have damaged 12.8 per cent of the ice core samples that were stored there. The university said the loss is devastating to the researchers who hoped to use the ice to look into questions about climate change and the planet’s history.
“The loss of any ice core sample is deeply concerning to the University of Alberta and to our research teams, who plan to use this ice to answer important questions about climate change and our planet’s history,” said Andrew Sharman, vice-president of facilities and operations.
“With the assistance of our service provider, the affected freezer has been restored, an investigation is ongoing, and we are working to ensure this does not happen again.”
In 2015, Natural Resources Canada approved a U of A proposal to take possession of ice cores previously stored in Ottawa at the Geological Survey of Canada’s Ice Core Research Laboratory. The Canada Foundation for Innovation provided $2.3 million for the U of A facility, with matching funds from the Government of Alberta.
The ice cores were shipped in a C-Can freezer container chilled to -30 C and equipped with a custom-built monitoring system that allowed for real-time response to any changes in temperature. The samples departed Ottawa on Jan. 12, 2017, and arrived at the U of A’s north campus on Jan. 15.
The ice cores remained in the C-Can freezer container until they were moved into CICA walk-in freezers on March 24. The facility, located in the South Academic Building, contains two freezers, a storage unit chilled to -37 C and an adjacent working unit cooled to -25 C.
Both units were commissioned in October and operated for over five months while holding 40 five-gallon buckets of ice to simulate the cores. Both CICA freezer units were functioning properly at noon on Friday, March 31.
Late in the afternoon of Sunday, April 2, U of A Protective Services and Edmonton Fire Service responded to a high-heat alarm in CICA. Facilities and operations found the temperature in the storage freezer had reached 40 C, resulting in the damage to the ice core samples.
All affected ice core samples were immediately moved into the working freezer, which was functioning properly and where the majority of the collection was being stored.
The Canadian Ice Core Archive, or CICA represents more than 80,000 years of evidence of changes to climate in 1.4 kilometres of ice. The collection contains 12 ice cores that were drilled in five different locations, and represents the world’s largest collection of ice core samples from the Canadian Arctic.
“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,” Glaciologist Martin Sharp, a professor in the Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences and principal investigator for CICA, said.
“But not all research we do involves analysis of entire cores. Sometimes we work with subsets of cores.
“We may have to reconsider some of the work we planned to do, but the work can and will continue—and nearly 90 per cent of the archive is still intact.”
Sharp added that new technologies such as cryogenic laser ablation would make it possible to explore whether useful analyses can be conducted on samples from the interior of the partially melted samples.
“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.”
“But not all research we do involves analysis of entire cores. Sometimes we work with subsets of cores,” Sharp said. “We may have to reconsider some of the work we planned to do, but the work can and will continue—and nearly 90 per cent of the archive is still intact.”