Published: Fri, February 01, 2019
Research | By Raquel Erickson

Canadian Glacial Soften Uncovers Historic Landscapes Hidden For 40000 Years

Canadian Glacial Soften Uncovers Historic Landscapes Hidden For 40000 Years

And one big takeaway is this: The Arctic might be having its warmest century in at least 115,000 years, according to a study published this month in the journal Nature Communications.

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.

For ages, ice has occupied the plateaus and walls of Baffin Island.

The rising global temperature has caused glaciers to melt in the Canadian Arctic, exposing an ancient landscape that has never been seen in 40,000 years.

Baffin is the world's fifth largest island.

However, in recent decades, the island has experienced significant warming, which is melting its glaciers and ice caps.

To paint a comprehensive picture of just how widespread and unprecedented the glacial retreat on Baffin Island is in modern times, the INSTAAR team collected 48 plant samples from the edges of 30 different ice caps at varying altitudes and exposures.


"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.

The samples were lacking radiocarbon, which suggests that they last saw the light of day at least 40,000 years ago. They used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the plants and how long they have been covered in ice. More alarmingly, the region might be ice-free in a few centuries, the researchers warned.

Unlike biology, which has spent the past 3 billion years developing schemes to avoid being impacted by climate change, glaciers have no strategy for survival.

"The high elevation landscapes that host these landscapes are striking in their own right, but knowing that the surface that you are walking on has been ice covered for millennia, and only now being exposed, is humbling", lead study author Simon Pendleton told MNN. "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".

Glaciers consistently reposed to warming and cooling patterns, making them an ideal proxy for historic climate change. If summers warm, they immediately recede; if summers cool, they advance.

"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", Pendleton said in a statement.

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