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Rescued ice cores bound for new home at University of Alberta

Ice cores, like the one held in this picture, provide a record of how current concentrations of carbon dioxide and rising global temperatures due to fossil fuel emission differ drastically from natural climate variations since the depths of the last ice age.

Anthony Scullion/Natural Resources Canada

More than five years after the federal government decided to shutter its collection of ice cores recording 80,000 years' worth of Canadian Arctic climate history, the frozen trove is finally on the road and heading to new digs at the University of Alberta.

A transport truck hauling a refrigerated container bearing 1.7 kilometres worth of ice cores, divided into one-metre-long segments, departed Ottawa on Friday morning. The cores are accompanied by a pair of monitors that hourly tweet out their location and temperature, allowing scientists to make sure that the unique cargo is crossing the country on schedule and staying well below zero.

"We're anticipating it will be here some time on Monday," said Martin Sharp, a glaciologist at the university who led the effort to bring the ice cores to Edmonton.

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The ice cores were orphaned in 2011 when scientists at the Geological Survey of Canada announced that "strategic budget compressions" were forcing them to dispense with Ottawa's Ice Core Research Laboratory. The decision drew fire from those who saw it as part of a broader attack on federal climate and environmental research by the Harper government. Scientists feared the ice cores and the information they contain about atmospheric composition and contaminants would be lost if no alternative accommodation was found.

"It was obviously a risk if nobody wanted to take them off the hands of the government," Dr. Sharp said.

The university signed an agreement to take over the collection in 2015 and has been laying the groundwork for the move ever since. The frosty shipment consists of ice cores extracted from glaciers across the eastern high Arctic in Nunavut as well as from Mount Logan in Yukon, Canada's highest peak.

Glaciers are built up of annual accumulations of snow that don't melt away but instead pile up, layer upon layer for millenniums. Scientists can analyze the layers, which grow progressively thinner the deeper into the glacier they probe, to discern how atmosphere has changed over the course of the glacier's existence.

Ice cores from various locations around the globe, including the world's largest ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, provide one of the most direct records of past climate change. Among other things, they show how current concentrations of carbon dioxide and rising global temperatures due to fossil fuel emission differ drastically from natural climate variations since the depths of the last ice age.

While the cores have already been analyzed by federal researchers, the prospect of using them to answer new questions using improved methods means they continue to have scientific value.

For example, Dr. Sharp and his colleagues are planning to study industrial chemicals – including some that are now banned – that were locked in the ice decades ago and may now be re-emerging as glaciers retreat under the influence of climate change.

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"They're coming out of the glaciers again and they're coming back into the environment," he said.

Another line of research deals with the possibility that microbes that colonized the ice may have a previously unappreciated effect on what the ice cores say about past climate.

The new facility in Edmonton includes a freezer for long-term storage of the ice cores as well as a sub-zero laboratory where researchers can extract and work with samples.

Dr. Sharp said he is already receiving inquiries from scientists, both in Canada and beyond, who are looking to work with the Alberta team or with the ice cores directly.

Anne Jennings, an Arctic researcher at the University of Colorado in Boulder, said she hopes to collaborate with ice core scientists to compare what land and ocean records say about the biological productivity of northern Baffin Bay.

Meanwhile, Sarah Aarons, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of California Irvine, is planning to visit Edmonton this spring in hopes that she will find chemical traces of ancient forest fires in the ice cores.

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"If works out it's going to be a great opportunity to collaborate internationally," she said. "When you have to go and drill your own ice core it's really expensive and time consuming."

Those interested in following the ice cores' trek can monitor their progress on Twitter.

The Globe's Ivan Semeniuk visits P.E.A.R.L., the Polar Environment Atmospheric Research Laboratory on Ellesmere Island, where scientists study atmosphere and climate in the High Arctic using high-powered lasers Globe and Mail Update
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