A catastrophic freezer malfunction in 2017 at the brand-new ice-core lab at Edmonton’s University of Alberta damaged or lost roughly 10 per cent of its samples. The facility had been custom-built to house the world’s largest collection of ice cores from the Canadian Arctic, and the meltdown was heart-wrenching for the institution, its researchers and the wider scientific community. Among the damaged samples was the oldest ice-core record ever collected from the north Pacific region, drilled in 2001 and 2002 by a team of federal government scientists on Mount Logan’s plateau, on a wide glaciated saddle between Prospector’s and Russell peaks. The sample, retrieved from drilling 180 metres deep, to bedrock, had provided scientists with a window into 16,000 years of climate history, making it one of the most valuable non-polar, high-resolution records of atmospheric climate change for the region.
In the incident’s immediate aftermath, unrelatedly, the university hired Alison Criscitiello to manage the new ice-core facility. The Boston-born, MIT-trained chemist knew what it took to collect cores in extreme, hard-to-get-to places. She had drilled across the Canadian Arctic, in Greenland and in the Antarctic. As a climber, she would also soon come to know Mount Logan, successfully ascending the peak herself in spring 2018. Could anyone who knows Criscitiello — cool, resourceful, energetic-to-the-max (the type of person who happily runs marathons, daily) — believe for a minute that plans for an ice-core rescue mission weren’t soon to follow?
I first met Alison Criscitiello at a coffee shop near the university’s campus early in 2019. We yakked about parenting, mutual climbing friends and our own research projects. All grin with tight curls suspended just below her distinguishing beanie toque, she explained how advances in modern-day, ground-penetrating radar could help her and her team locate an even better drilling site on Logan’s plateau and thus yield a superior ice core.
But that important radar work would require an initial expedition to the mountain. For my part, as a historian, I also hoped to return to Mount Logan to try to repeat a series of photographs taken up high during various mountaineering ascents over the past century. The comparison of images, old beside new, might reveal something, I figured, about climatic warming at high elevations. My objective took a historical view; Criscitiello’s was all forward-looking — but both projects revolved thematically around change on Canada’s highest peak. We cheerily resolved to team up.
But, within eight months, as the first wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic swept the country, all designs for a 2020 expedition — like pretty much everything else — ground suddenly and stunningly to a halt.
That rapid change is occurring today across the Yukon’s glaciated landscape is hardly a surprise. It’s well known that the rate of temperature change — caused by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere — is amplified at high latitudes. This was driven home in 2010 when researchers first compared aerial photographs from the Canadian Land Survey in the 1950s with modern-day satellite images and found that of the 1,400 glaciers surveyed a half-century ago, 300 had disappeared. And nearly all others had shrunk. “It’s a regional thinning rate that is greater than almost all other glacier and ice-cap regions,” said geophysicist Nick Barrand, who was one of the study’s lead authors.
There is growing evidence those rates of warming are also further amplified at elevation, meaning that the world’s highest mountain ranges are warming more rapidly than their surrounding lowlands. That’s a double whammy for Canada’s high northern mountains. And this appears to be the case for Mount Logan, at least according to a 2020 study that used an array of meteorological data to show that the air near the mountain’s top was warming more rapidly than at its lower slopes.