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The Ice Memory operation saved Arctic climate heritage after an expedition endangered by melted water

20/04/2023

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Despite unexpected obstacles posed by melted water and unfavourable/dangerous weather conditions, the international team of scientists was able to drill three deep ice cores on the largest and highest glacier Holtedahlfonna in Svalbard Archipelago. This successfull operation would ensure the analysis and preservation of the Arctic climate archives.

Today, operations will begin to safely transfer people, ice cores, and equipment from the remote camp at 1,150 metres of altitude to the research village of Ny-Ålesund, 80 kilometres distant. Those activities are expected to last a couple of days, bringing the total operation’s duration to 23 days.

Led by the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council of Italy (Cnr-Isp) and involving scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS), Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and the University of Perugia, the mission is almost achieved.

The 3 collected ice cores have both a scientific and cultural value. They will be crucial to better understand climate change in a region where impacts are going four times faster than the global average. Furthermore, with the Ice Memory Foundation, an ice core will be preserved for centuries to come at the dedicated Ice Memory Sanctuary in Antarctica. Future generations of scientists will thereby have access to the high-quality ice core to study the past climate of our planet as to anticipate future changes, long after the glacier has disappeared due to global warming.

First tentative - A hard fight against the melted water in very bad weather conditions The team had set up camp at an altitude of 1,150 meters in the Arctic (latitude 79.15 North) on the 4th April and had been struggling against the very bad weather conditions for a few days. In a very strong wind (-40°C perceived), the team was ready to start the drilling on Saturday 8th April. They started the deep drilling and collected the first samples. While drilling at 24.5 meters in depth, liquid water appeared in the hole. “Seeing all that water into the glacier gave us the clearest evidence yet of the effects that dramatic climate change is having in the Arctic”, tells Daniele Zannoni, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, one of the drillers.

The previous drilling on the Holtedalhfonna ice field, in 2005, did not encounter melted water. Then, in 2015, radar observations showed the presence of perennial aquifers in the glacier. However, scientists did not expect to find a so extended, abundant and saturated aquifer in the selected drilling site, at the end of winter.

This expedition is therefore adding an unprecedented puzzle tile to the knowledge of the Arctic ice cap dynamics and impacts of climate change. “Here, too, among the Arctic glaciers of the Svalbard Islands, the importance and urgency of the goals envisioned by the Ice Memory Foundation appears dramatically evident. This aquifer appears particularly extensive such that it produces a constant flow of water within the core hole of about 2 L/min“, announced Jacopo Gabrieli, CNR, the deputy expedition leader.

The turning point: moving up /higher to the icefield dome - Unfortunately, the pressure exerted by the amount of water that poured into the drill hole damaged two driller’s motors. The risk of damaging all the available motors was so high, that scientists decided to move the drilling dome and the driller to a new site on a summit on the Dovrebreen glacier, 150 meters distant from the initial site, 13 meters higher in altitude, hoping not to intercept the same amount of melted water into the firn.

“In the new site, according to radar measurements, the ice depth was expected to be lower than in the previous site - explains Andrea Spolaor, CNR, expedition leader - However, there is no evidence suggesting that much shorter ice cores would mean an equally shorter climate record”. Transferring the drilling and its tent during yet another storm was challenging, but the team succeeded and drilling operation resumed on 12th April. With no water or other major obstacles in the ice cap, the team managed to drill an ice core to the bedrock in a couple of days, reaching a depth of 73.89 metres into the glacier.

The second ice core was completed on Sunday 16th April. The team decided to retrieve a third ice core. “Despite all the difficulties we kept the morale high and we stayed focused on our objectives - says Catherine Larose, CNRS - because we had clear in mind the fundamental importance of those ice core samples for the science of today and tomorrow”.

From the extreme cold to dangerous warm conditions - During the last weekend, the temperature rose to -3° C at the camp. A warm extreme that brought rain in Ny-Ålesund causing dangerous water streams in the last segment of the path from the camp to the village. “We were transferring ice cores to Ny-Ålesund with sledges and two snowmobiles - recalls Fabrizio de Blasi, CNR researcher - when we got stuck in a stream created by rain and melted snow. It took us three hours of work and the support of colleagues to bring the precious cargo to safety”. To avoid the rest of the team running into the same obstacle, scientists decided to wait a few days for the return of colder temperatures before continuing the evacuation of the camp and the recovery of samples and equipment.

The Ice Memory Foundation calling for international support - The Ice Memory Foundation, which collects, saves and manages ice cores from currently endangered glaciers for decades and centuries to come, strongly calls for action with the ice core research community. “As alarming are these situations in Arctic, in Europe and elsewhere on the planet, we do need now from the researchers to contribute rapidly to collect samples from endangered glaciers or to save in Antarctica already collected ice cores, as to preserve these very precious data in the Ice Memory Sanctuary in Antarctica”, calls Carlo Barbante, paleoclimatologist, Vice Chairman of the Ice Memory Foundation, director of the CNR’s Institute of Polar Sciences, professor at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. For Anne-Catherine Ohlmann, director of the Ice Memory Foundation “Ice Memory is a trans-generational project that will involve the children of today who will become the scientists of tomorrow. If we lost archives such as this one, we would lose the memory of how humankind has altered the atmosphere. Let us try to preserve it for the future generations who will study it when we are no longer here”. “We also need countries to become strongly involved, to mobilize efficiently in a cooperative action, to open the door to their glaciers and to facilitate the archiving of the history of the planet, as well as to work with their local researchers.”

The Ice Memory Sanctuary in Antarctica: 300m2 of storage at Concordia Station in 2024-2025 A dedicated snow cave will be built at the French Italian Concordia Station, the only international research station on the Antarctic Plateau. Operated by the French Polar Institute and PNRA, and allows natural storage at -50°C, the Concordia Station offers the storage site which will cover a surface area equivalent to approximately twenty 20-foot containers, or approximately 300 m2. The first cave should be available for the first Ice Memory cores in 2024-2025 and will offer solutions to major challenges, despite the added complexity of transporting to Antarctica, this strategic choice is essential for several fundamental reasons:

- Guaranteed long-term preservation of the samples using 100% “natural” storage with no energy consumption required for refrigeration, thereby protecting the precious samples from any risk of disrupted refrigeration (technical problems, economic crisis, conflict, acts of terrorism, etc.).

- Structured management of these unique samples, combined with restrictive Antarctic logistics that prevent easy access to the cores.

- Storage in a polar region managed via the Antarctic Treaty - signed by the world’s major nations, and for which territorial claims are frozen.

Team members: Andrea Spolaor, Expedition leader, Paleoclimatologist & Snow chemist, CNR - Italy Jacopo Gabrieli, Glaciologist CNR - Italy Catherine Larose, Microbiologist CNRS - France David Cappelletti, Chemist, University of PERUGIA - Italy Victor Zagorodnov, Ice cores driller Cryosphere Research Solutions LLC - USA Fabrizio de Blasi, Glaciologist - Polar Institute - CNR - Italy Riccardo Selvatico, Photographer & videomaker, Italy Paolo Conz, Mountain guide, Italy The Ice Memory Foundation was founded by 7 scientific institutions: University Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development - IRD, French Polar Institute in France, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, CNR in Italy, Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland and is sheltered by the University Grenoble Alpes Foundation. ice-memory.org The expedition is part of the SENTINEL project (The impact of sea ice diSappearance on highEr North aTlantic clImate and atmospheric bromiNe and mErcury cycLes), funded by the Arctic Research Program (PRA) of the Italian Ministry of University and Research. The expedition is led by the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council of Italy (Cnr) and involves scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Cnrs), Norwegian Polar Institute, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and the University of Perugia. Karpos, Aku, and Polibox are the expedition’s technical sponsors.

The Ice Memory Foundation was founded by 7 scientific institutions: University Grenoble Alpes, CNRS, French National Research Institute for Sustainable Development - IRD, French Polar Institute in France, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, CNR in Italy, Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland and is sheltered by the University Grenoble Alpes Foundation. 

The expedition is part of the SENTINEL project (The impact of sea ice diSappearance on highEr North aTlantic clImate and atmospheric bromiNe and mErcury cycLes), funded by the Arctic Research Program (PRA) of the Italian Ministry of University and Research. The expedition is led by the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council of Italy (Cnr) and involves scientists from the French National Centre for Scientific Research (Cnrs), Norwegian Polar Institute, Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, and the University of Perugia. Karpos, Aku, and Polibox are the expedition’s technical sponsors

Per informazioni:
Carlo Barbante
direttore Cnr - Isp
carlo.barbante@cnr.it

Ufficio stampa:
Alessandro Frandi
Ufficio stampa Cnr
alessandro.frandi@cnr.it

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