By Hannah Hoag of Nature magazine

An unusual 'help wanted' advertisement arrived in the inboxes of Canadian scientists last week. The e-mail asked the research community to provide new homes for an impressive archive of ice cores representing 40 years of research by government scientists in the Canadian Arctic.

The note was sent out by Christian Zdanowicz, a glaciologist at the Geological Survey of Canada (GSC) in Ottawa. He said that the collection faced destruction owing to budget cuts at Natural Resources Canada (NRCan), the government department that runs the survey, and a "radical downsizing" of the Ice Core Research Laboratory. The e-mail pressed scientists at universities and other institutions to take in the ice cores before they were left to melt.

But David Scott, director of the GSC's northern Canada division, challenges the assertion. He says that GSC management did not approve the letter, and it contains a number of factual errors. "There is no shutdown of the ice-core facility being contemplated. We're not actively dispersing the collection," he says. "Nothing that meets the criterion of having scientific value would be destroyed."

Mixed messages

Zdanowicz told Nature that he circulated the note after the glaciology group was told by management that the lab had a limited future, and researchers should find ways to transfer the material. The flurry of responses to the letter from scientists might have led GSC management to reconsider, he adds.

Scott says that the GSC has never considered closing the facility or dispersing the ice cores. He adds that although the building currently housing NRCan's clean cold facility is to be closed and sold, the agency plans to relocate all its on-going programs to other NRCan facilities.

But another scientist in the glaciology group, who asked not to be named because he was speaking without permission from management, agrees with Zdanowicz. He says that roughly three months ago, the group was told that they would no longer be working on ice cores. The fate of the cores seems to change from one day to the next, he says.

The glaciology group is scheduled to meet with GSC management to discuss the issue on Thursday afternoon.

The GSC has shifted its scientific focus to stay in line with government strategy. Scott says that the agency's cryosphere research will centre on permafrost in built environments and the growth and contraction of glaciers over time. The extraction of deep ice cores is "no longer a priority for us at the moment", he notes.

The ice-core confusion comes shortly after an announcement that Environment Canada, the country's environment agency, is to cut back its ozone science and monitoring program (see 'Canadian ozone network faces axe').

Cold collection

The collection of ice-cores was drilled from ice caps and ice fields throughout the Canadian Arctic. It comprises more than 1,000 meters of ice cylinders documenting thousands of years of climate history. Most of the cores contain ice dating back to the end of the last glaciation, about 12,000 years ago, but some may contain ice up to 80,000 years old. The longest of the cores, extracted from the Agassiz ice cap on Ellesmere Island, is longer than 330 meters.

Cores are important sources of data on past climate change, because they can contain dust, gas bubbles and chemical isotopes that give clues as to atmospheric and temperature conditions when the ice was laid down. The resolution of the information is often sharper than that in other proxies, such as ocean sediments.

The Canadian samples "are from unique locations -- and there are no other ice cores from those areas", says Mark Twickler, director of the science management office of the US National Ice Core Laboratory in Denver, Colorado. "Each one is like a weather station and can give us a lot of valuable information about the climate in the past."

"It would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace them at some point in the future," says Martin Sharp, an arctic researcher at the University of Alberta in Edmonton. "This is a hugely expensive business and throwing stuff away that is perfectly usable is really not a great idea."

Stunned by the prospect of losing the cores -- and the expertise of the glaciology group -- the international ice-core community has rallied. "That group has done virtually all the research on ice cores that has been done in the Canadian Arctic. It's a key team to complement the work the rest of us do," says Eric Steig, a glaciologist at the University of Washington in Seattle.

Ice-core experts say that there is no other facility in Canada that could store the entire collection, although in principle the US National Ice Core Laboratory could house the cores.

"I think people in the United States would make sure that the ice is safe," says Karl Kreutz, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Maine in Orono. "The Canadians have been a very collaborative group. I think we would step up to help them out if it came to that."

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on September 15, 2011.