Plants Suggest Arctic Summers Haven’t Been This Warm In 115,000 Years

Mindy Sparks
February 1, 2019

A new study issued in the Nature Communication journal revealed that a never-before-seen land in the Canadian Arctic emerged from underneath the ice thanks to glacial melt. The latter conserves lichens and moss in their original position in the ice for periods of time lasting thousands of years - a little like a cryogenic chamber.

The plants were found in and around the island's Penny Ice Cap region, in elevations ranging from several hundred meters to a mile above sea level.

An image of Baffin Bay, free of winter ice, in 2002.

For the first time in more than 40,000 years, blue skies and sunshine once more grace Arctic landscapes previously entombed under thick ice caps.

According to some researchers, this could the warmest century in more than 115,000 years.

They add that it's possible the island, the fifth largest in the world, could be completely ice-free in only a few centuries. The recently exposed landscape, largely on plateaus between fjords, is dominated by boulders, bedrock and tundra vegetation. The island has experienced significant summertime warming in recent decades.

"The Arctic is now warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, so naturally, glaciers and the ice caps are going to react faster", Simon Pendleton, the study's lead author and a doctoral researcher at the University of Colorado, Boulder's Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research, said in a statement.

In August a year ago, the researchers collected 48 samples of vegetation from the edges of 30 different Baffin ice caps, as well as some samples of nearby quartz.

"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. "But by using what our data says about continuous cover for the last 40,000 years, and using the temperature records, we can speculate that they have been continuously ice-covered for the last 120,000 years". 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.

Glaciers consistently reposed to warming and cooling patterns, making them an ideal proxy for historic climate change.

Pendleton said radiocarbon dating's effectiveness only goes back about 40,000 years; hence, his findings that ice coverage of the region under study goes back "at least" 40,000 years.

Pendleton added that normally, ice in high elevation would hold on longer.

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