Enquiring minds want to know

Within them sits some 80,000 years of history, offering researchers tantalising clues about climate change and the Earth’s past. At least that was the case – until the precious cache of Arctic ice cores was hit by warming temperatures.

A freezer malfunction at the University of Alberta in Edmonton has melted part of the world’s largest collection of ice cores from the Canadian Arctic, reducing some of the ancient ice into puddles.

“For every ice-core facility on the planet, this is their No1 nightmare,” said glaciologist Martin Sharp.

Were they using renewable energy to power those freezers?

22 thoughts on “Enquiring minds want to know”

  1. “The way in which the freezer failed meant that it started to pump heat into the freezer”

    In engineering, one of the main design choices is how something fails. If your car engine fails, the car comes to a gradual stop; contrary to what we see on TV, it doesn’t explode in a fireball of petrol and metal.

    Why would any engineer design a freezer’s fail mode to actively heat the contents? The mind boggles.

  2. @AndrewM
    Pumping the working fluid around a freezer circuit creates heat. This heat is removed, along with the desired evapourator section heat, in the condenser stage. Lose the condenser stage but continue to pump fluid around the circuit results in a net increase of heat in the entire circuit.
    WHT they didn’t incorporate a simple temperature sensitive shut off switch in the circuit, heaven knows. Scientists, probably. Not engineers.

  3. BiS,

    Yes, that seems to be what happened. There are some technical pointers here: https://www.ualberta.ca/news-and-events/newsarticles/2017/april/freezer-failure-results-in-damage-to-ice-core-collection

    An investigation into the freezer malfunction found fault with the cooling system. Specifically, the refrigeration chillers shut down due to “high head pressure” conditions. Essentially, the chillers were not able to reject their heat through the condenser water system—heat instead of cold circulated through the freezer.

    Compounding matters, the system monitoring the freezer temperatures failed due to a database corruption. The freezer’s computer system was actually sending out alarm signals that the temperature was rising, but those signals never made it to the university’s service provider or the on-campus control centre.

    They didn’t test the failure mode. Scientists, not engineers.

  4. Scientists are, of course, dedicated seekers after the truth. Why, therefore, do I have this sneaking suspicion those ice cores contained data proved the Great Gerbil Worming Catastrophe’s a load of bollox?

  5. Good engineering practice would also have had them cut each sample in half and store the other bit elsewhere. Chumps!

  6. The temperature monitor didn’t directly control the system, but sends a signal elsewhere and depends on the elsewhere to respond and shut the signal down? And even worse, sends a signal elsewhere to alert a human to events so the human can send a signal back. Ridiculous! Should be the electrical equivalent of mechanical interlock, the sensor is directly wired to the controller, A thermal two-way switch directly in the power line to the pump that flips the power directly from ‘pump’ to ‘awoogah!’

  7. @jgh
    But the consensus of scientific opinion is that a consensus of opinionated scientists are infallible.
    (Or maybe that’s inflammable. It’s so hard to read the writing)

  8. @Richard

    ‘I can’t help wondering if the cores contained awkward evidence of earlier warm periods.’

    We’re pumping oil from the frozen wastes of Canada. That’s kind of a clue!

  9. Bloke in North Dorset

    “We’re pumping oil from the frozen wastes of Canada. That’s kind of a clue!”

    Not really, everybody accepts the earth has been a lot warmer.

    I’ve lost interest in the detail of AGW debate but one argument I saw some time ago was that there was an increase in CO2 after the earth had warmed and this had shown up in an ice-core. However if that had been shown in these ice-cores why wait so long to destroy them?

    I think we can go with the Occam’s Razor answer of incompetent scientists.

  10. I suppose things like “insurance” and “maintenance contract” are oppressive tools of the patriarchy?

  11. Most of the ice corpses were decades old.

    I take the ice cubes out of my freezer, study them, then throw them into a Singapore Sling. What they were saving theirs for, no one knows.

  12. ‘The freezer’s computer system was actually sending out alarm signals’

    Suppose they heard the alarm. WTF could they do? Watch them melt in real time, instead of finding out later? There is a huge presumption that they could have done anything about it.

  13. > WTF could they do?

    Per my link above, they had two freezers. They could move the cores from the broken one to the working one.

  14. BiND,


    she says it was known in 2003 but I saw the ice core data in 1997 projected onto a massive screen in a lecture hall and the lag was obvious (temperature rises before CO2 rises and CO2 continues to rise after temperature starts to fall).

    Atmospheric CO2 is a trailing indicator of temperature rise in the ice cores. (probably out gassing from the oceans)

  15. BiND – yes really, if the question is were there earlier warm periods, in a non Industrial Age (i.e. 99.9999999% of the earth’s life), which there obviously were, vastly more so than anything AGW is going to inflict.

  16. “They could move the cores from the broken one to the working one.”

    You presume government workers would work after hours.

  17. You presume government workers _c_ould work after hours.

    I simply couldn’t get in to my building between 19:00 and 07:00. That people may actually want to, or need to, work late doesn’t enter into the comprehension of the people who control the security contracts.

    A colleague is currently doing a lot of collaboration with his direct counterpart in New Zealand. This causes a horrid burden on the administration that we are repeatedly censured for.

    I worked a couple of hours yesterday and a couple more today. This simply does not compute. You cannot, not just do not, work on public holidays.

  18. How convenient that the easily accessible evidence of past warming suddenly is gone through a simple freezer malfunction.

    Sure, it could be a genuine mishap. But these are the people who use models that have been tweaked by multiple people over several decades *and* tweaked with no documentation so you can’t even tell what’s been done to them. That’s on top of ‘making adjustments’ to surface temperature stations ‘to take into account environmental changes’ – like heavy urbanization around the site while the site still shows too flat of a temperature slope.

  19. Don’t worry, we still have the computer models, which are far more accurate than actual ice core samples.

  20. I spent three years at the U of A. Lovely place but a very lefty uni in a very lefty city, Edmonton.

    The uni is heavily unionized, with the usual results – no one is responsible for fuck all and no one does fuck all and fuck you for asking me to do fuck all. This will of course apply to those who bought the cooling system, those who maintain it and those who monitor it.

    But by golly they have more VPs of diversity etc, etc, etc than you can count.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *