DRI Science via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
DRI Science via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

Freezer Malfunction Melts Precious Arctic Ice Samples

DRI Science via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0
DRI Science via Flickr Creative Commons // CC BY-ND 2.0

When your freezer breaks down, you might lose some leftovers or a box of your favorite popsicles. But when a scientist's freezer malfunctions, the world stands to lose thousands of years’ worth of stored history. That’s what happened last week, when an equipment failure at the University of Alberta (UAB) melted ancient samples of Arctic ice.

An ice core is kind of like the vertical equivalent of a tree’s rings. The gas bubbles, sediment, and chemicals trapped in each of its many layers tell a story about the world at that particular moment in time.

UAB’s Canadian Ice Core Archive holds 12 cores—nearly 1 mile of ice—representing roughly 80,000 years of our planet’s history. Some of the samples have been in storage since the 1970s. Many of them are now considerably smaller than they were a few weeks ago.

Each long, cylindrical core is stored in segments, a space-saving measure that may have been the collection’s salvation. The segments were divided between two freezers, one of which shut down over the weekend when the temperature-control system failed. In trying to correct the issue, the system made things worse, blowing hot air over the samples, turning the ancient ice back into water for the first time in millennia.

Glaciologist Martin Sharp rushed into the archive to find steaming puddles all over the floor. “It was more like a changing room in a swimming pool than a freezer,” he told The Guardian. “I’ve had better days. Let’s say that.”

The archive lost 12.8 percent of its total sample mass, including about 22,000 years’ worth from the Penny Ice Cap on Baffin Island. Some of the samples are “clearly toast,” Sharp told The Guardian, while others were barely affected.

The samples have been moved into more secure storage, and Sharp and his team plan to drill new samples to replace what they’ve lost. But the ice covering some of the original sampling sites is melting, too.

“Some of these ice caps are disappearing,” Sharp told The New York Times, “and we’re going to lose this record, in some cases sooner rather than later.”

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science
Scientists Have Discovered Massive Canyons Beneath Antarctica's Ice Sheets
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Scientists have been studying Antarctica for over a century, but details as basic as what it looks like beneath all that ice have largely remained a mystery. Now, Earther reports that a team of scientists from Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and the UK has published the most comprehensive data yet on the continent's subglacial topography near the South Pole.

As they report in the journal Geophysical Research Letters [PDF], central Antarctica is home to three massive canyons, one of which is deeper than the Grand Canyon and nearly as wide at some points. The researchers made the discovery by flying a plane with radar over the South Pole, a spot that isn't covered by imaging satellites. They expected to find mountains beneath the ice sheet, but the expansive chasms they detected between the mountains came as a surprise.

Of the three canyons, two hadn't been documented previously. The largest, the Foundation Trough, measures 218 miles long, up to 22 miles wide, and 6260 feet deep, putting it up there with the planet's most impressive canyons.

The discoveries are significant on their own, but the real purpose behind the research is to better understand how the West and East Antarctic Ice Sheets will react to rising temperatures. Human-induced climate change has destabilized some of the continent's ice, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet especially has been slowly crumbling into the sea. If patterns continue, the coastal glaciers supporting the massive ice sheets could collapse, causing sea levels to rise a minimum of 10 feet. If this happens, the canyons could be a major factor in the speed and direction of ice flow from central Antarctica to the coast.

The event isn't likely to happen in the near future, but further study of Antarctica's topography will allow scientists to better predict when it might.

[h/t Earther]

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Animals
Climate Change Is Making It Hard for Bears to Hibernate Through the Winter
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What was once a rare sight—a bear wandering outside its den before springtime—has become increasingly common, thanks to climate change. As The New York Times reports, warming temperatures are waking American black bears from hibernation earlier than ever, and in some cases, preventing them from settling down for the winter in the first place.

Hibernation is a vital part of the black bear's life cycle. When awake, a bear must consume at least 11 to 18 pounds of food per day to maintain a healthy body weight. Withdrawing for the winter allows it to survive the food scarcity that comes with the colder months.

But as climate change promotes certain extreme weather patterns in the western U.S., the region's black bear population has begun to act differently. Last year the Pine Nut Mountains in Nevada saw unusually high levels of snowfall, and the excess moisture produced an abundant pine nut crop. This past winter, snowfall in the area hit near-record lows, leaving the pine nuts exposed on the ground for a longer period. The prolonged access to food in the area meant some bears started hibernating later or just never got around to it.

Many of the bears that did eventually crawl into their dens were woken up ahead of schedule this year. According to a 2017 study, for every 1°C that minimum winter temperatures rise, bears hibernate six days fewer. In January 2018, temperatures in the Pine Nut Mountains reached 5.4°C above the 20th-century average for the region.

Some years bears emerge from hibernation during droughts, which are exacerbated by climate change, and food is hard to come by. When that's the case, bears may end up on private property, raiding people's trash cans and bird feeders and sometimes breaking into their homes. Fatal bear attacks on humans aren't common: The more likely scenario is that the so-called problem bear will be euthanized. Bear management groups will often try other strategies, like capture and release and aversive conditioning, before resorting to this option. Nonetheless, dozens of bears are euthanized by states each year.

Black bears aren't the only ursine species being forced to adapt to global warming. In the Arctic, polar bears are losing the sea ice they need to hunt marine mammals, and many of them are moving onto land in search of prey. Climate change is pushing both species of bears toward human-populated territory, which means conflicts between the bears and people will only increase from here.

[h/t The New York Times]

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