The ice cores cometh

UAlberta chosen to house a national treasure—Canada’s ice-core archive.


(Edmonton) In a classic episode of the hit TV series The X-Files, Scully and Mulder visit a remote Arctic ice-core drilling station to find scientists infected with primordial ice worms that have driven them crazy and caused them to kill each other.

It’s pure sci-fi, to be sure. But it’s true that ice cores contain ancient microbes, some of which have been brought back to life in labs and may provide the key for future generations of drugs. In fact, some estimates put the total biomass of all the microorganisms contained in or under Arctic and Antarctic ice at 1,000 times that of all human life on Earth.

And that’s only one example of the wealth of information trapped in ice.

Sometime next year, Canada’s national collection of ice cores will make its journey across the country in a convoy of freezer trucks. When it arrives, the University of Alberta will be the official custodian of samples collected in the Canadian North over the past 40 years and dating back at least 12,000 years—and in some cases much further.

Keeper of frozen secrets

The artifacts trapped in those millennial layers of ice is invaluable—from air bubbles containing ancient atmosphere to the aforementioned paleo-microbial DNA, to industrial contaminants of the modern age. And best of all, the U of A already has all the expertise to unveil those myriad frozen secrets, along with lab facilities unmatched anywhere in the country.

Previously housed in Ottawa’s Ice Core Research Laboratory at the Geological Survey of Canada, the collection was orphaned after Natural Resources Canada began refocusing its priorities in 2011. NRCan was interested in making it more accessible to researchers, so it put out a call to Canadian scientists, to find out who was interested in adopting it.

U of A glaciologist Martin Sharp says the university was very interested, not only because of the collection's value as a research resource, but also “because the techniques available for analyzing ice cores and the range of information that can be extracted from them now are radically different from when the cores were collected.

“Ice cores are one of the best repositories of information about past climates and past environments,” he adds, "and the better we can see into the past, the better we can predict the future."

So for Deputy Provost Roger Epp—and for a number of U of A scientists who turn to ice cores for crucial data—it seemed like a no-brainer to jump in and place a bid on behalf of the U of A, supported with letters from a number of international collaborators.

“I just thought we had to do this, give it our best shot, partly because this is a symbol of our interest in being serious about northern work,” says Epp. “When I tell people within the university about this, they get excited about it. It feels right and important.

“It’s a national treasure and deserves to be situated in a place where we can make the most of it, not simply treated as an archive, but as something to which we can continue to contribute, and it positions the U of A as an important national and international player in this kind of northern and Arctic research.”

In late March the U of A signed a transfer agreement officially accepting responsibility for the archive. The U of A will absorb the cost of maintaining the collection until it can be accommodated here sometime next year.

It will cost up to $4 million to build a state-of-the-art cold storage facility—as well as refurbish sampling and coring gear—in the basement of the South Academic Building. But the university is seeking external funding to cover most of that cost, says Epp. The archive will consist of more than 1,000 metres of ice cores, each about a metre long, from Arctic and subarctic Canada amassed since the early 1970s.

Core competency


Central to the U of A’s pitch for the archive was the fact that it has some $18 million in existing laboratories across four faculties devoted to, or experienced in, the physical, chemical and microbiological analysis of snow, ice and permafrost.

Because technology has advanced at such a rapid pace, it is now possible to see into those cores at resolutions impossible two decades ago. Analyzing them is similar to reading tree rings, each layer representing a year of accumulated snow and ice, along with anything else trapped with it.

The deeper you drill, however, the greater the compression of ice. Some of the ice records are as old as 800,000 years, but beyond a few hundred years back, the annual resolution breaks down, making dating more difficult.

“And because the ice is compressed, we often have very small samples we’re dealing with,” says David Hik, whose research in the Department of Biological Sciences looks at how species of plants and animals in the North or in mountains respond to environmental change. “There are often very low concentrations of naturally occurring and other pollutants or heavy metals,” which means labs in which cores are analyzed must be ultra-clean to avoid contamination.

But in addition to simply maintaining the archive and analyzing its contents, the U of A also plans to contribute new cores to fill in gaps in a complex environmental record. To that end, it will send out expeditions to acquire fresh samples.

One planned expedition, led by William Shotyk in the Department of Renewable Resources, will drill a 300-metre-long core into the ever-receding Athabasca Glacier, allowing what he calls “the most comprehensive climate and environmental reconstruction ever undertaken in Canada,” stretching back 5,000 years.

The truth is out there

Ice cores may not paint the entire past-climate picture, but when added to other sources of information—tree rings, permafrost cores, lake and deep-sea sediment cores, fossil plants and sub-glacial plants—they are a powerful and rich complement.

And scientists across the country can be sure the collection will thrive in its new home, giving the U of A credibility as an international leader in climate history.

“The U of A has strong expertise, laboratory and analysis capacity and the curatorial framework to manage these assets,” says Donna Kirkwood, director general of NRCan’s central and northern Canada branch.

“The proposed ice-core facility will ensure continued preservation and full access to the ice cores, benefiting the national and international research community by providing valuable information and stimulating new research in a number of fields.”