Views / Citizen Scientist

Earth Day is about preserving knowledge, too

The ice-core freezer malfunction was a tragic snafu, but saving science isn't only about the big things.

Arctic ice on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut

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Arctic ice on Ellesmere Island, Nunavut

My stomach fell through the floor when I read the news out of the University of Alberta earlier this month: 13 per cent of an irreplaceable collection of Arctic ice cores are lost forever thanks to a dual malfunction in a freezer and the software monitoring it.  

Analyzing the gases trapped in ancient ice is one of the few windows we have into climatic history. They’re practically priceless. And now they’re water.

The snafu is enough to strike terror into the heart of everyone who has ever made a mistake at work, a.k.a. everyone.

Far be it for me to point fingers. But I want to draw attention to an overlooked aspect of the story: The ice-core collection was “orphaned” and needed a new home because of budget cuts at Natural Resources Canada. It used to be housed at a federal lab in Ottawa.

Securing scientific knowledge for future generations costs money. Sometimes a lot. But it’s more than worth it.

On Earth Day, we focus, rightly, on what we can do to preserve the precious environments and resources that grace our planet. But preserving knowledge is just as important. And we can’t have one without the other.

And most of the time, preserving knowledge about the Earth doesn’t require fancy freezers. A digital document will do.

I spoke to UBC hydrologist Sean Fleming this week about how little of the data that’s been accumulated about Canada’s rivers, invaluable to conservation, is actually available to the public.  

Right now, his book Where the River Runs is new. But, as books do, it eventually will go out of print. Presumably it will live on, online.

Librarians who convert old books to digital formats, storing them in an easy-to-access way forever, are superheroes. Ditto for the people running the Wayback Machine, a project for capturing websites that have been left fallow online too long and become dead links.

Those people deserve props on Earth Day, too.

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