It's about the worst thing imaginable for researchers studying ancient ice collected from the Arctic: a freezer failure. But that's exactly what happened at the University of Alberta in Canada, reports the CBC. School officials say they lost about 13% of their ice core samples—part of the Canadian Ice Core Archive—when a $4 million freezer system soared to about 100 degrees Fahrenheit. (It should have have been about 40 below zero.) Not only did the freezer fail, but so did a monitoring system designed to alert officials of temperature changes. Luckily, a high-heat alarm at the facility was finally triggered, and researchers were able to stem the damage. One quirk helped greatly: Much of the ice had been in an adjacent freezer unit—but only because a TV crew was planning to do a show about the ice and the lighting was better in that one.
"For every ice-core facility on the planet, this is their No. 1 nightmare," glaciologist Martin Sharp tells the Edmonton Journal. "When you lose part of an ice core, you lose part of the record of past climates, past environments—an archive of the history of our atmosphere." The effect on research is unclear, though the Globe and Mail characterizes it as "disappointing but likely not crippling." The entire collection amounts to nearly a mile of ice and provides a snapshot of climate change in the Canadian Arctic going back 80,000 years. About 600 feet of ice was lost in the snafu, though no single core was fully destroyed. The samples were extracted over the last 40 years. School officials promise a thorough investigation of what went wrong and better safeguards to prevent similar glitches. (Scientists are searching for 1.5 million-year-old ice.)