Res­cued ice bound for Al­berta

The Globe and Mail (Prairie Edition) - - NEWS - IVAN SEMENIUK SCI­ENCE RE­PORTER

Core seg­ments are use­ful to sci­en­tists as a record of cli­mate change

More than five years af­ter the fed­eral gov­ern­ment de­cided to shut­ter its col­lec­tion of ice cores record­ing 80,000 years’ worth of Cana­dian Arc­tic cli­mate his­tory, the frozen trove is fi­nally on the road and head­ing to new digs at the Univer­sity of Al­berta.

A trans­port truck haul­ing a re­frig­er­ated con­tainer bear­ing 1.7 kilo­me­tres worth of ice cores, di­vided into one-me­tre-long seg­ments, de­parted Ot­tawa on Fri­day morn­ing. The cores are ac­com­pa­nied by a pair of mon­i­tors that hourly tweet out their lo­ca­tion and tem­per­a­ture, al­low­ing sci­en­tists to make sure that the unique cargo is cross­ing the coun­try on sched­ule and stay­ing well be­low freez­ing tem­per­a­tures.

“We’re an­tic­i­pat­ing it will be here some time on Mon­day,” said Martin Sharp, a glaciol­o­gist at the univer­sity who led the ef­fort to bring the ice cores to Ed­mon­ton.

The ice cores were or­phaned in 2011 when sci­en­tists at the Ge­o­log­i­cal Sur­vey of Canada an­nounced that “strate­gic bud­get com­pres­sions” were forc­ing them to dis­pense with Ot­tawa’s Ice Core Re­search Lab­o­ra­tory.

The de­ci­sion drew fire from those who saw it as part of a broader at­tack on fed­eral cli­mate and en­vi­ron­men­tal re­search by the Harper gov­ern­ment.

Sci­en­tists feared the ice cores and the in­for­ma­tion they con­tain about at­mo­spheric com­po­si­tion and con­tam­i­nants would be lost if no al­ter­na­tive ac­com­mo­da­tion was found.

“It was ob­vi­ously a risk if no­body wanted to take them off the hands of the gov­ern­ment,” Dr. Sharp said.

The univer­sity signed an agree­ment to take over the col­lec­tion in 2015 and has been lay­ing the ground­work for the move ever since.

The frosty ship­ment con­sists of ice cores ex­tracted from glaciers across the east­ern high Arc­tic in Nu­navut as well as from Mount Lo­gan in Yukon, Canada’s high­est peak.

Glaciers are built up of an­nual ac­cu­mu­la­tions of snow that don’t melt away but in­stead pile up, layer upon layer for mil­len­ni­ums. Sci­en­tists can an­a­lyze the lay­ers, which grow pro­gres­sively thin­ner the deeper into the glacier they probe, to dis­cern how at­mos­phere has changed over the course of the glacier’s ex­is­tence.

Ice cores from var­i­ous lo­ca­tions around the globe, in­clud­ing the world’s largest ice sheets in Green­land and Antarc­tica, pro­vide one of the most di­rect records of past cli­mate change. Among other things, they show how cur­rent con­cen­tra­tions of car­bon diox­ide and ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures due to fos­sil fuel emis­sion dif­fer dras­ti­cally from nat­u­ral cli­mate vari­a­tions since the depths of the last ice age.

While the cores have al­ready been an­a­lyzed by fed­eral re­searchers, the prospect of us­ing them to an­swer new ques­tions us­ing im­proved meth­ods means they con­tinue to have sci­en­tific value.

For ex­am­ple, Dr. Sharp and his col­leagues are plan­ning to study in­dus­trial chem­i­cals – in­clud­ing some that are now banned – that were locked in the ice decades ago and may now be re-emerg­ing as glaciers re­treat un­der the in­flu­ence of cli­mate change.

“They’re com­ing out of the glaciers again and they’re com­ing back into the en­v­i­ron- ment,” he said.

An­other line of re­search deals with the pos­si­bil­ity that mi­crobes that col­o­nized the ice may have a pre­vi­ously un­ap­pre­ci­ated ef­fect on what the ice cores say about past cli­mate.

The new fa­cil­ity in Ed­mon­ton in­cludes a freezer for long-term stor­age of the ice cores as well as a sub-zero lab­o­ra­tory where re­searchers can ex­tract and work with sam­ples.

Dr. Sharp said he is al­ready re­ceiv­ing in­quiries from sci­en­tists, both in Canada and be­yond, who are look­ing to work with the Al­berta team or with the ice cores di­rectly.

Anne Jen­nings, an Arc­tic re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Colorado in Boul­der, said she hopes to col­lab­o­rate with ice-core sci­en­tists to com­pare what land and ocean records say about the bi­o­log­i­cal pro­duc­tiv­ity of north­ern Baf­fin Bay.

Mean­while, Sarah Aarons, a post­doc­toral re­searcher at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Irvine, is plan­ning to visit Ed­mon­ton this spring in hopes that she will find chem­i­cal traces of an­cient for­est fires in the ice cores.

“It works out it’s go­ing to be a great op­por­tu­nity to col­lab­o­rate in­ter­na­tion­ally,” she said. “When you have to go and drill your own ice core it’s re­ally ex­pen­sive and time con­sum­ing.”


Ice cores, such as the one held in this pic­ture, pro­vide a record of how car­bon-diox­ide con­cen­tra­tions along with ris­ing global tem­per­a­tures dif­fer from the most re­cent ice age.

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