Alberta glaciologist climbed and camped atop Mount Logan to learn about climate history

Last June, Alison Criscitiello led a seven-person team to North America’s second-highest peak 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, has stood atop Canada’s tallest mountain a few times before. She describes it as “technically non-technical” since climbers don’t have to set up fixed lines to climb the entire route.

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

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The nine-day mountaineering exposition to the summit of Mount Logan is not left out. While holding on to the top – and of course a successful descent – may be the goal of many climbers, Criscitiello’s final mission really began once his boots reached the highest point.

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

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

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“We are drilling cylinders one meter long and 82 millimeters in diameter, 327 of those,” Criscitiello explained.

Working and camping at nearly 6,000 meters above sea level is no small feat.

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

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

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The ice was hauled in a sling by a very skilled helicopter pilot and eventually brought to CICL on the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton. It is the only laboratory of its kind – and perhaps the coldest. One room is at -40 C.

The team members, dressed in arctic gear, have spent the past two weeks processing the cylinders inside the freezing laboratory. Their rosy cheeks and frozen fingers stand in stark contrast to the students enjoying the last rays of summer sunshine outside the building.

But the group is not complaining. There is even a student who has volunteered to take off winter clothes and participate in groundbreaking research.

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“That should show an interesting climate balance,” said Anne Meyers, an analytical chemist at CICL. “We’ve seen a few volcanic layers already, and then when we do deeper analyzes 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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During this mission, Criscitiello’s team brought back the longest ice core ever extracted from the huge glacier.

“I see this 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 to how glaciers and ice sheets have responded to changes in ocean circulation, changes in surface temperature, and warming, we can potentially predict the things that have an impact on everyone on the planet.

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

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“Change is coming to these high places.”

CICL has a total of 1,317 ice core samples spanning a combined total length of approximately 1.4 kilometers. They represent over 10,000 years of climate change. The lab’s oldest sample dates from around 79,000 BCE.

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