Landscapes which haven’t been seen for more than forty thousand years are now being unveiled due to melting glaciers, new research has found.
The research is focused on the Canadian Arctic, in particular Baffin Island, which has just seen its warmest century in approximately 115,000 years.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the study suggests climate change is the reason behind this glacial retreat so we can expect to see even more changes in the very near future.
The research was published in Nature last week, and was carried out by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder.
The study looked at Baffin Island in particular, as Phys.org reports the island has experienced ‘significant summertime warming’ in recent decades.
Simon Pendleton, lead author and a doctoral researcher in CU Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR) told the publication:
The Arctic is currently warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, so naturally, glaciers and ice caps are going to react faster.
— Phys.org (@physorg_com) January 25, 2019
Pendleton and his colleagues’ research focused on plants collected at the edge of ice caps on Baffin island, which is the fifth largest island in the world.
The landscape is dominated by deeply incised fjords and high-elevation, low-relief plateaus – these act as a ‘natural cold storage’ and preserve ancient moss and lichens in their original growth position.
Researchers took samples of these plants and found that all of them had likely been continuously covered by ice for the past 40,000 years – and have only just been revealed due to the ice melting.
We travel to the retreating ice margins, sample newly exposed plants preserved on these ancient landscapes and carbon date the plants to get a sense of when the ice last advanced over that location.
Because dead plants are efficiently removed from the landscape, the radiocarbon age of rooted plants define the last time summers were as warm, on average, as those of the past century.
In August last year, the researchers collected 48 plant samples from 30 different ice caps on Baffin Island, to cover a range of elevations and exposures.
Sadly, once the samples had been tested researchers discovered that all of the ancient plants had likely been covered by ice for thousands of years, and had only just been uncovered.
The research also found that temperatures on Baffin Island over the last century have been the warmest in the region for 115,000 years.
Gifford Miller, senior author of the research and a professor of geological sciences at CU Boulder, explained:
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.
They’re well behaved, responding directly to summer temperature. If summers warm, they immediately recede; if summers cool, they advance. This makes them one of the most reliable proxies for changes in summer temperature.
With temperatures only rising, it is thought that Baffin Island could be completely ice-free within the next few centuries.
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