U of A scientists climb Canada's highest mountain to study ice cores

Alison Criscitiello, director of the University of Alberta's Canadian Ice Core Lab spent three weeks on Mount Logan setting up for next year's drill for old ice.

Studying the ice from Mount Logan will help determine the climate in North Pacific thousands of years ago

(L to R) Toby Harper-Merrett, Alison Criscitiello, Rebecca Haspel and Zac Robinson at Camp Two on Mount Logan. (Zac Robinson)

Battling -20 to -40 C temperatures, strong winds, snowfall and high altitudes, Alison Criscitiello and her team spent three weeks atop Mount Logan in May to lay the groundwork for drilling an ice core next year. 

The director of the University of Alberta's Canadian Ice Core Lab told CBC's Edmonton AM the purpose of the drill on Canada's highest mountain, is to locate old ice that could have answers about the climate thousands of years ago. 

"We think there's 30,000-year-old ice sitting up there," she said.  

She said they are looking for ice that is well-preserved with an undisturbed record, and could provide answers to the climate in the North Pacific pre-Holocene. 

Holocene is the current geological epoch — an event or a time marked by an event that begins a new period, in this case, after the last glacial period more than 11,000 years ago. 

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Criscitiello said most of the ice cores they have with long climate records are usually from the poles, either from the Arctic or Antarctica. 

"There aren't that many other places on the planet that are cold enough and high enough and don't see any melt even in the height of summer to really preserve these beautiful climate records," she said.

Rebecca Haspel and Alison Criscitiello on Mount Logan's main summit. (Zac Robinson)

Once they have the ice core, she said there's a long list of data they can collect, including reconstructing temperature in the past, forest fire history, and volcanic ash fallout.  

All those factors together will paint a picture of the kind of climate that existed tens of thousands of years ago. 

Although the trek to get these answers seems formidable, for a high-altitude mountaineer like Criscitiello who has climbed the mountain twice before, the conditions were fairly typical.

"I think we got lucky with storms, actually. Usually it can get stomped for a while, just buried in the hour in huge, huge amounts of snowfall," she said. "It's really the temperatures you're battling. It's just incredibly cold and, of course, you're dealing with the altitude moving slowly and acclimatizing safely."

This isn't the first time drilling took place in Mount Logan to locate old ice. 

In 2002, a core was drilled on the Logan summit plateau. Scientists had collected ice samples 16,000 years old.