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Large archive of Canadian ice cores melts

A large archive of Canadian ice cores has been lost, melting when the freezer they were stored in failed.

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.

Considering the cost and difficulty of drilling these cores, and then safely bringing them to the facility without melting, it seems to me astonishing that the facility did not have back-up freezer capability.

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