• Ice Memory
    Gran Sasso

In the heart of the Gran Sasso glacier is hidden the planet's climatic past. Together with scientists AKU wants to protect it.

text by Piero Carniel, photos and video by Riccardo Selvatico

The core drilling operations of the Ice Memory – Gran Sasso mission, of which AKU is a supporter and sponsor, have been completed in Europe’s southernmost glacier.
The mission in the Gran Sasso massif is only the latest in a series of operations aimed at preserving a memory that is buried in the perennial ice.
For Ice Memory, in fact, the one on the Calderone is the fourth mission on the glaciers after the 2016 mission to Mont Blanc, the 2020 mission to Grand Combin and the 2021 mission to Monte Rosa.

In the Calderone glacier, it has not been possible to trace such ancient ice, but there are more informations that Jacopo Gabrieli, a CNR-Isp researcher and field coordinator of the mission, together with the other scientists expect to obtain. “Through targeted laboratory studies, we will try to define its characteristics and acquire the preserved chemical and isotopic information, if available. In the median part of the profile, we have verified the presence of plant and insect residues, the dating of which will help us understand when the surrounding ice accumulated”.

The Ice Memory project sees the collaboration of several important scientific institutions together with AKU. The mission is organised by Cnr-Isp (National Research Council – Institute of Polar Sciences), Ca’ Foscari University, in collaboration with Ingv (National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology) and the University of Padua.

Europe’s southernmost glacier that is not a real glacier

The Corno Grande (m. 2912) of the Gran Sasso d’Italia is the highest mountain in the Apennines and southern Italy, located in the Gran Sasso and Monti della Laga National Park. Like a real castle, the rock formations protect a gem of ice that is embedded between its four towers (Vetta Occidentale, Torrione Cambi, Vetta Centrale and Vetta Orientale). The Calderone glacier owes its longevity to the special local conditions in which it is located: its northern exposure and the geomorphology of the steep rock faces protect it from the sun’s rays, also allowing a good supply of snow during the winter season.
In spite of this, the two portions of which the Calderone is composed have been downgraded from glaciers to glacionevates, formations of snow and ice without any downstream movement, a typical characteristic of glacial ecosystems that are still dynamic and vital.

The Calderone is a unique snapshot of Mediterranean glaciation. As early as 2000, what was a single formation of ice and snow was divided into two different portions, one upper and one lower. Partitioning a glacier is never a good sign; it emphasises its decrease in size rather than its expansion. In the last 30 years, the retreat of the glacier has been considerable; in 1994 its extension was 6 hectares while now it is only 2 hectares: 65% of its area has been lost forever and with it the information it contained. In addition to the retreat, there is also the thinning of the ice. In the first part of April, the Ice Memory researchers had carried out surveys to find out the best place to take the core drilling machine: they were looking for the maximum thickness so that the surveys could bring in as much data as possible. Surprisingly, they managed to obtain an ice core of 27.2 metres against the estimated 26 metres.

“This expedition was a gamble, we did not know what we would find deep
in the Calderone glaciers, which loses about a metre of thickness every year” comments Carlo Barbante, director of CNR-Isp, professor at Ca’ Foscari University in Venice and co-creator of the international Ice Memory programme.

Drilling through the ice was not easy. The operations carried out on Monte Rosa, where the core drilling machine reached a depth of 80 metres, were easier. The difference lay in the composition of the ice, which in the case of the Gran Sasso “was plastic, extremely warm and soaked in water, and the drill bit tended to knead, failing to cut the surface,” comments Jacopo Gabrieli. The difference between a hard and cold ice versus a plastic and warm one is not only in the difference in drilling, but also signals the nature of two completely different glaciers. In the first case, we are dealing with a glacier that is still in good condition, while in the case of the Calderone, the situation is unfortunately one of rapid retreat.

The reasons for the Ice Memory project

“Understanding the climate and environment of the past makes it possible to anticipate future changes,” explains Carlo Barbante. “Mountain glaciers preserve the memory of the climate and environment of the area in which they are located, but they are inexorably retreating due to global warming, placing this invaluable scientific heritage under threat.”
But what is the relationship between ice cores and climate?
The researchers involved in the project explain how through the study of the micro-bubbles of air trapped in the ice, it is possible to know the composition of the air itself: the presence or absence of certain gases, such as greenhouse gases, or the concentration of carbon dioxide. That snow that fell thousands of years ago (millions in the case of the cores taken in Antarctica) and turned into ice, preserved under layers of other snow, holds data that can now be studied. In addition to this, it is possible, thanks to stratification, to trace the exact period to which the ice samples belong and to compare them in order to obtain an evolution of conditions on our Planet. Enclosed in a small air bubble is a microcosm that is a precise snapshot of the period in which it was trapped until the researchers arrived.

The Ice Memory project is not limited to the study of ice states but also its preservation. Thinking about the future development of investigation methods, the researchers save the ice from certain melting. An ice ‘library’ has been created in Antarctica, ice cores taken from glaciers currently in danger of shrinking or disappear. Scientists are convinced that this ice contains valuable information and should also be studied in the future when it is no longer present in nature.

Ice Memory in the Gran Sasso’s Calderone Glacier

The expedition lasted 12 days and took place in April 2022, to which must be added the inspection days carried out in early spring. The site chosen to set up the drilling base was at an altitude of 2,673 metres, at the foot of the Corno Grande. It was precisely here that the greatest thickness of the ice had been identified through surveys, which turned out to be 27.2 metres, a metre thicker than the planned 26. The expedition was initially conditioned by bad weather, which considerably prolonged the researchers’ presence at altitude. The weather conditions were defined as “harsh” by Jacopo Gabrieli himself, who, together with the team, also had to cope with the “extremely hot and water-soaked” ice, which further slowed down operations. Ice Memory Gran Sasso used a machine weighing 4,500 kg for the drilling, which was brought up to altitude thanks to the fundamental help of the national fire brigade (Vvf), which provided vehicles and personnel from the Pescara and Rome Ciampino flight departments. The days spent on the Gran Sasso would not have been possible without the extraordinary opening of the Franchetti refuge, owned by the Italian Alpine Club (CAI) of Rome and thanks to the operational support of the Abruzzo Mountain Rescue Service and the small municipality of Pietracamela, located on the slopes of the Gran Sasso.

The southernmost
glacier in Europe

27.2 metres
of ice

2,673 metres
altitude

2 Universities,
2 National Institutes

AKU together with Ice Memory

The Ice Memory project is part of AKU’s broader commitment to environmental protection. Not only by funding and supporting scientific missions, but also by supporting initiatives aimed at responsible and conscious tourism. In addition to this, constant research aimed at responsible production is always central to the Italian footwear manufacturer: ReAct Responsibly is the philosophy that guides our actions.
The Ice Memory project is a long-term commitment for AKU; the collaboration began last year with the collection of samples on the Monte Rosa glacier and will continue for the next three years, supporting researchers in future missions.

The partnership in the Ice Memory project is not only based on environmental issues but also because of the affinity that exists between AKU footwear and the specific use that the researchers and support team needed. The missions take place in harsh climates, where the temperature is often below zero, with ice and snow conditions. Mountain guides and scientists with mountaineering knowledge are involved in reconnaissance, transporting material and days at altitude, and footwear that offers excellent performance is required. AKU footwear manages to combine the need for a technical product for progressions in the alpine environment and at the same time comfortable, given the long hours and various activities in which it is worn. For the Ice Memory project, AKU supplied Hayatzuki GTX, the cramponable top product with Primaloft inserts for winter mountaineering, and Rock DFS GTX, the approach and trekking footwear with the Dual Fit System designed by AKU, which was used by the team for everyday actions outside the glacier environment.




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