Friday, 9 June 2017

Achievement and Disasters in Ice Core Science

Achievement/Disasters in Ice Core Science

In an earlier blog, I wrote about a talk given at the University of Alberta, on the Canadian Ice Core Collection, which has recently been housed at the U of A, moving from Ottawa.

Unfortunately, shortly after that talk and blog, a fairly significant disaster occurred at the Ice Core collection – a freezer failure led to some 13% of the collection being damaged by heat – i.e. melting or partially melting, as outlined below.  When melting occurs, the water can also leak down to un-melted ice, and contaminate it, thus making those samples difficult to reliably analyse as well.

It is ironic that this should occur, as one of the reasons for moving the collection was to house it in a new, secure facility, as there was some concern that the Ottawa facility lacked sufficient safeguards in this respect (e.g.. a power failure might endanger the collection).

In this case, it seems like the problem was a control system breakdown, compounded by a computer malfunction, as noted in the article, linked below.  The system was built with multiple safeguards, so such an event seems highly improbable.  An relative of mine, who worked on control systems at a major city water treatment plant said that there would normally be many layers of backup in an important system, including a certain amount of human oversight, so he was surprised that such an event could take place.

Of course, this naturally makes one wonder whether the system might have been hacked.  As we know, many government and corporate systems have been hacked in the past few years, and others have had breakdowns that haven’t been acknowledged as hacks or sabotage, but have engendered suspicions along these lines as well (the latest case, in late May 2017 was the British Airways computer malfunction, which stranded tens of thousands of travellers for days).  That was blamed on a power surge, caused by a careless contract engineer, but some people wonder about that story.

Several universities have been hacked as well, including the U of A’s sister institution, the University of Calgary.  In that case (and most others), the hackers have been after ransom money.  Could that be the case with the ice core collection?  From all accounts, it seems unlikely (no ransom demand has been reported). 

Nonetheless, global warming is a highly contentious subject, perhaps the most contentious in science today.  And, there are many interests who wouldn’t mind an ice core  melt-down, if it slowed progress in climate science.  The U of A, and other universities with such collections, had best be on guard, just in case.

Oh, and just to add to the mystery, a power failure dumped chlorinated water into a freshwater tank, containing fish and frogs at the U of A, on May 30, 2017.  They were killed by the chlorine.

“It’s the latest infrastructure failure at the university.

In April, a freezer malfunction melted some of the world’s largest collection of Canadian Arctic ice−core samples. About 12 per cent of the collection — some of which dates back to the last ice age — was damaged when temperature in the storage freezer soared to 40 C. The monitoring system also failed due to a computer glitch.

Babiuk said it’s unfortunate the two equipment failures happened back to back, but added they are not connected. The university has a $938−million backlog of deferred maintenance projects and upkeep for aging research facilities isn’t included on that list, he said.

"Funding for research maintenance is an ongoing challenge," he said. "We are doing what we can to mitigate those risks, but the reality is that even with a new facility, failures can and sometimes do occur."

The animal care council flagged the aquatic facility’s water treatment system during recent visits, the university said. It responded with a $25−million plan phased in over five years. Just over $2 million was earmarked to replace the water supply system and install chlorine monitoring — work which was scheduled to begin later this year.
In the meantime, the university has replaced the failed equipment and added an alarm to warn on−call staff if the dechlorination pump or its backup fails, Babiuk said.
The university is also planning to install a chlorine alarm which would be monitored around the clock from the university’s central control centre, he said. All interim measures should be complete within six weeks.

The death of so many fish has stalled some important research including a study into the environmental impact of fracking.”

P.S. I work at the university and love the place for all its faults, so I hate to see these things happen.  So, to lighten the mood, I will add a couple of XKCD comics about ice.

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