Ice Memory Foundation preserves “climate memory” of Svalbard | Polarjournal
The frozen climate archive could be secured before it disappears. Photo: Riccardo Selvatico / CNR

In early April, an international research team from the Ice Memory Foundation set out for Holtedahlfonna on Svalbard as part of the SENTINEL project. Their mission: to preserve the rapidly melting climate archive that Svalbard’s glaciers – still – hold.

The scientists retrieved three ice cores from Holtedahlfonna, which lies about 80 kilometers northeast of the international research settlement Ny Ålesund on the island of Spitsbergen. Holtedahlfonna is one of the largest and highest glaciers in the Svalbard archipelago.

A press release from the Ice Memory Foundation describes the three collected ice cores as “an important scientific and cultural heritage in the current context of strong Arctic warming.” That is why one of the ice cores will be saved as a “climate memory” for subsequent generations of scientists. Together with ice cores from glaciers around the world, it will be stored in the specially established Ice Memory Sanctuary in Antarctica. Future generations of scientists will thus have access to high-quality ice cores that will allow them to study new evidence of historical environmental conditions on Earth and predict future changes long after the glaciers have disappeared due to global warming.

The other two ice cores will be used for timely analysis to improve the understanding of climate change in the Arctic, which is warming four times faster than the global average.

The expedition is led by the Institute of Polar Sciences of the National Research Council of Italy (CNR) involving scientists from the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS), the Norwegian Polar Institute (NPI), and the Italian Universities of Perugia and Ca’ Foscari in Venice.

Meltwater and extreme weather

The researchers had to deal with extreme weather conditions and faced obstacles when drilling due to large amounts of meltwater in the snow layers. At what felt like -40°C due to the very strong wind, they encountered meltwater while drilling near their first camp at an altitude of 1,150 meters, which massively affected their work. During the very first deep drilling, liquid water appeared in the borehole at a depth of 24.5 meters.

“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,” explains Daniele Zannoni of Ca’ Foscari University in Venice, who drilled the wells with a colleague. Jean-Charles Gallet, snow physicist at NPI and expedition logistics coordinator, adds, “Since 2005, all radar observations showed us the presence of a perennial aquifer located around the central line of the glacier. The previous drilling on the Holtedalhfonna did not encounter meltwater, as so we thought this year. We drilled almost at the edge of the glacier, on sloped terrain. There, we did not expect to find such an extended, abundant and saturated aquifer, at the end of winter.”

The team’s acquired experience adds an important new piece of the puzzle to the knowledge of Arctic ice cap dynamics and climate change impacts even before the ice cores have been analyzed. The glaciers are not only dramatically losing mass, but also their cold content, the report says. “Here, too, among the Arctic glaciers of the Svalbard Islands, the importance and urgency of the goals envisioned by the Ice Memory Foundation appear dramatically evident. This aquifer appears particularly extensive such that it produces a constant flow of water within the core hole of about two liters per minute,” says Jacopo Gabrieli, glaciologist at CNR and deputy expedition leader.

Success at the second attempt

The pressure of the meltwater in the borehole was so high that two engines of the drilling machine were damaged. Therefore, the team decided to start a new attempt at a site 150 meters away in order not to jeopardize the success of the expedition. There, the researchers succeeded in drilling down to the bedrock at a depth of almost 74 meters without any obstacles and managed to extract the three ice cores.

Extreme cold followed by alarmingly high temperatures

In mid-April, the temperature in the glacier camp rose so sharply, to -3°C, that some of the researchers, who were already transporting some of the valuable samples to Ny Ålesund, encountered dangerous streams of water on their way. “We were transferring ice cores to Ny-Ålesund with sledges and two snowmobiles,” recalls Fabrizio de Blasi, a researcher at CNR, “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.”

The scientists who were still at the camp did not arrive with the remaining samples and equipment until several days later, after temperatures had dropped again.

International support for the preservation of climate archives

The Ice Memory Foundation aims to collect, save and manage ice cores from selected glaciers currently in danger of degradation or disappearance, with their yielded information for decades and centuries to come, according to their website. Safeguarding these ice cores, they say, is key to provide scientific advances and knowledge, that will ultimately contribute to the well-being of humanity.

“Glaciers at high latitudes, such as those in the Arctic, have begun to melt at a high rate. We want to recover and preserve, for future generations of scientists, these extraordinary archives of our Planet’s climate before all the information they contain is completely lost,” explains Carlo Barbante, paleoclimatologist, director of CNR’s Institute of Polar Sciences, professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and vice-chairman of the Ice Storage Foundation in an earlier news story.

However, given the rapid pace of warming, the collection of ice cores must now happen quickly, which is why the Ice Memory Foundation is asking for international support: “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 who did not participate in the expedition.

The Ice Memory Sanctuary at Concordia Station in Antarctica

From the 2024/2025 season on, the first Ice Memory cores will be stored in the Ice Memory Sanctuary – a snow cave still under construction at the French-Italian Concordia Station on the Antarctic plateau. Seen from today’s perspective, this place seems ideal. At least the temperature of -50°C is still low enough to provide safe storage for the ice cores. With 300 square meters, the snow cave offers storage space sufficient for a large number of ice cores.

Six ice cores have already been taken from glaciers around the world in recent years (white), with more to follow in the near future (orange). Graphic: Ice Memory Foundation

Although transporting the ice cores to Concordia Station requires intense logistical effort, this location is ideal in many ways:

  • Guaranteed long-term preservation of samples with no energy consumption required for refrigeration, protecting samples from any risk of disrupted refrigeration (technical problems, economic crises, conflicts, terrorist attacks, etc.).
  • Structured sample management combined with restrictive Antarctic logistics that prevent easy access to cores.
  • Storage in a polar region managed via the Antarctic Treaty, signed by the world’s major nations, for which territorial claims are frozen.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

Link to the website of the Ice Memory Foundation: https://www.ice-memory.org/english/

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