Alberta glaciologist climbed and camped atop Mount Logan to unlock climate history

Click to play video: 'Alberta glaciologist digs deep to find clues about changing climates' Alberta glaciologist digs deep to find clues about changing climates
Watch: A team of scientists at Canadian Ice Core Lab is ready to start analyzing record-breaking ice core extracted from Canada's highest peak. As Jayme Doll reports, the scientists are hoping to unlock potentially 30,000 years of climate history – Sep 15, 2022

Last June, Alison Criscitiello led a team of seven up the second-highest peak in North America in search of ancient ice and to potentially unlock tens of thousands of years of climate history.

Criscitiello, director of the Canadian Ice Core Lab (CICL) at the University of Alberta and National Geographic Explorer, has stood at the top of Canada’s highest mountain a couple of times before. She describes it as “technically non-technical” since climbers don’t have to set fixed lines to get up the entire route.

This time, the team spent nearly two weeks on the 20-kilometre summit of Mount Logan, drilling hundreds of meters into its surface.

Read more: Montrealer aims to be 1st woman to summit Mount Logan in solo expedition

The nine-day mountaineering exhibition to the peak of Mount Logan is nothing to slouch about. While standing at a summit — and of course a successful descent — may be the goal of many mountaineers, Criscitiello’s latest mission truly began once her boots hit the highest point.

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“For a non-polar location, there’s a particularly long climate record that’s sitting up there because of how deep the ice is and how cold it is,” she said.

“Usually we go to the poles… but (Mount) Logan has this enormous summit plateau at high altitude that acts like a bowl and allows for long-term accumulation of snow.”

Click to play video: 'Former Albertan participates in ‘MOSAiC Expedition’ international Arctic climate change research project' Former Albertan participates in ‘MOSAiC Expedition’ international Arctic climate change research project
Former Albertan participates in ‘MOSAiC Expedition’ international Arctic climate change research project – Oct 16, 2020

“We drill one-metre-long and 82-millimetre diameter cylinders, 327 of those,” Criscitiello explained.

Working and camping at an altitude of nearly 6,000 metres is no small feat.

“We had to stay up high in a low-oxygenated working environment, very cold and very windy. You just don’t ever feel good, even when you are acclimatized,” said the experienced mountaineer.

Three of her team members had to leave because of altitude sickness.

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Read more: After 8 rescues in 7 years, Parks Canada has new rules for climbing Canada’s highest peak

The ice was long-lined out in a sling by a very skilled chopper pilot and eventually brought to the CICL at the U of A campus in Edmonton. It’s the only lab of its kind — and perhaps the coldest. One room is -40 C.

The team members, layered in Arctic gear, have spent the past two weeks processing the cylinders inside the frigid lab. Their rosy cheeks and frozen fingers are a stark contrast to the students who are soaking up the last of the summer sun outside the building.

But the group doesn’t complain. There’s even a student who volunteered to pull out the winter clothes and take part in the ground-breaking research.

Click to play video: 'Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapses into the sea' Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapses into the sea
Canada’s last intact ice shelf collapses into the sea – Aug 7, 2020

“It should show an interesting climate record,” said Anne Meyers, an analytical chemist at the CICL. “We have already seen a couple of volcanic layers and then when we do more further analysis, we’ll see even more layers when we look at the molecular level.”

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This is not the first time ice samples have been taken from Mount Logan. There was an exhibition in the early 2000s.

Read more: Ancient ice samples from northern Canada en route to University of Alberta

On this mission, Criscitiello’s team brought back the longest ice core ever extracted from the massive glacier.

“I kind of look at it as looking into the past so we can look into the future,” Criscitiello said.

“If we can understand long-term changes in the past about how glaciers and ice sheets have responded to changes in ocean circulation, changes in surface temperature and warming, we can potentially predict things that impact everyone on the planet.

“These really high mountain surfaces, like on the top of Mount Logan, are seeing increased surface temperatures,” said Criscitiello, who has worked extensively at the Columbia Icefields.

Read more: Climate change will ‘fundamentally’ shift how Canada, allies handle Arctic: NATO chief

“Change is coming to these high places.”

The CICL has a total of 1,317 ice core samples stretching a combined total length of about 1.4 kilometres. They represent more than 10,000 years of changes to the climate. The oldest sample in the lab is approximately 79,000 BCE.

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