Frozen Assets

Maclean’s

Ice cores tell the history of Canada’s climate, but now the government doesn’t want them anymore.

In a nondescript government office in the middle of Ottawa’s downtown core lie more than 10,000 years of the Arctic’s climate history. Ice cores drilled from Canada’s northernmost ice caps and ice fields are packed into dog-eared, insulated cardboard boxes and loaded onto floor-to-ceiling shelves in a walk-in freezer in a government building on Booth Street. Notes duct-taped to the outside divulge the distant origins of their contents: Agassiz, Prince of Wales, Penny. There are more boxes stashed in freezers outside the walk-in at the offices of the Geological Survey of Canada, and still more in rented commercial space, stored between frozen fish and ice cream.

Each core contains the sea salt, dust and air caught in the snow as it fell on the glaciers over thousands of years. They contain the records of past environmental changes, a history of human impact on greenhouse gases, atmospheric pollutants and global temperatures. And they have been collected over four decades at great expense.

But the ice core library’s future is far from certain, as the Geological Survey of Canada’s research priorities have changed and the Booth Street building is slated to be sold.

In September, GSC glaciologist Christian Zdanowicz sounded the alarm, asking Canadian colleagues for expressions of interest and citing a “radical downsizing” of the Ice Core Research Laboratory. “Before we proceed with destroying the collection, we wish to ensure that the core holdings be made available to researchers with an interest in using them for climate and atmospheric studies,” he wrote.

Zdanowicz’s boss took issue, saying the decision was not due to budget cuts and no ice cores would be destroyed. Instead, the extraction of deep ice cores and the paleoclimate work that goes along with them is no longer a priority, according to David Scott, director of the Geological Survey of Canada’s northern division. Research will focus on permafrost and infrastructure—think northern airstrips and roads—as well as the growth and retreat of glaciers over time, which they can measure from aerial and satellite images.

→ Continue reading at Maclean’s magazine.

This article was mentioned on the Montreal Open File blog, Saturday Reads.

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