Melting glaciers reveal landscapes not seen in 40,000 years

Olive Hawkins
February 1, 2019

Climate change is pulling back the curtain and exposing an Arctic landscape not seen by the Sun in 40,000 years or more.

"The Arctic is now warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, so naturally, glaciers and ice caps are going to react faster", explained Simon Pendleton, a researcher at CU Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR), and the leading author of the recent study.

For this study, scientists plucked 48 mosses and lichens - still rooted in the spots where they were killed by expanding ice millennia ago - from the edges of 30 retreating ice caps on Canada's Baffin Island during summers from 2010 to 2015.

The modern-day retreat of glaciers and ice caps on Baffin Island are revealing plants preserved beneath them that can shed light on the last time the Arctic was as warm as it is now.

Previous observations indicate that foliage is soon "removed" from the environment once it loses that protective ice layer, either by meltwater in the summertime or wind-blown snow in winter. When the ice melts the ancient plants that were caught during the freezing stage are released.

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Even with the naked eye, the changing landscape of Baffin Island is obvious. The recently exposed landscape, largely on plateaus between fjords, is dominated by boulders, bedrock and tundra vegetation. They, too, were bereft of radiocarbon.

The team also sampled quartz from each site to establish the age and history of the landscape.

Simon Pendleton, a doctoral researcher at the University of Colorado's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, is the lead author of the study published Friday in the journal Nature Communications. More alarmingly, the region might be ice-free in a few centuries, the researchers warned.

"Unlike biology, which has spent the past three billion years developing schemes to avoid being impacted by climate change, glaciers have no strategy for survival", said Gifford Miller, senior author of the research and a professor of geological sciences at CU Boulder. They're well behaved, responding directly to summer temperature. "This makes them one of the most reliable proxies for changes in summer temperature". Like the rest of the Arctic circle, the region is experiencing warming at a rate twice the global average - so much so that plants and moss that haven't been exposed since the last ice age are now starting to creep through the melting ice.

The level of carbon dioxide that is present in the atmosphere will reach a new record in 2019, heralding warmer summers that will come in the future. "A high elevation location might hold onto its ice longer, for example", Pendleton said in a statement from the university.

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