An Alberta glaciologist climbed and camped on Mount Logan to unravel climate history

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

Criscitiello, director of the Canadian Ice Core Lab (CICL) at the University of Alberta, has climbed Canada’s highest mountain a number of times. She describes it as “technical non-technical” as climbers don’t need to set fixed ropes to get up the entire route.

This time, the team spent almost two weeks at the 20-kilometer summit of Mount Logan, drilling hundreds of meters into its surface.

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The nine-day mountaineering exhibition to the top of Mount Logan is nothing to fret about. While standing on a summit—and, of course, a successful descent—may be the goal of many climbers, Criscitiello’s latest mission really began when her boots reached the highest point.

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“For a non-polar place, there’s a particularly long climate record up there because the ice is so deep and cold,” she said.

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

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“We drill cylinders that are one meter in diameter and 82 millimeters in diameter, 327 of them,” explained Criscitiello.

Working and camping at almost 6,000 meters is no small feat.

“We had to stay high up in a low-oxygen work environment, very cold and very windy. You just never feel good, even when you’re acclimatized,” said the veteran climber.

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

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The ice was hauled out in a sling by a highly experienced helicopter pilot and eventually taken to CICL on the U of A campus in Edmonton. It is the only laboratory of its kind – and perhaps the coldest. A room is -40 C.

Dressed in arctic gear, team members have spent the last two weeks manipulating the cylinders in the cold lab. Her rosy cheeks and frozen fingers stand in stark contrast to the students soaking up the last summer sun in front of the building.

But the group doesn’t complain. There’s even one student who volunteered to pull out their winter clothes and take part in the groundbreaking research.

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

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

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Ancient ice samples from northern Canada en route to the University of Alberta

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

“I see it as a look into the past so we can look to the future,” Criscitiello said.

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

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

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“There is a change coming at these high places.”

The CICL has a total of 1,317 ice core samples spanning a total length of approximately 1.4 kilometers. They represent more than 10,000 years of climate change. The oldest sample in the laboratory is approximately 79,000 BC.

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© 2022 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc. An Alberta glaciologist climbed and camped on Mount Logan to unravel climate history

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