As global warming drives changes in climate, Arctic landscapes which have been hidden deep below the surface of the ice bed are beginning to get exposed as ancient glaciers continue to melt.
Researchers have been pitching their tent on Baffin Island, in the Canadian territory of Nunavut almost every summer for 40 years, and the changes revealed by their observations each year are increasingly alarming. Today, Arctic temperatures are rising two to three times faster compared to the rest of the world. If this trend continues, Baffin Island’s glaciers may disappear before we have time for further discovery.
"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," explains geologist and paleoclimatologist Gifford Miller. "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."
During their research, Miller and his team took samples of old moss and lichen, which had been preserved for thousands of years under the ice. For the first time in several tens of millennia, these plants see the light of day once again. "The strange thing about these mosses is that a lot of them can just start growing again, so they're the closest thing to a zombie that I know of, the living dead."
Thanks to carbon dating, researchers were able to estimate that the life of these plants had been suspended more than 40,000 years ago, and up to 120,000 years ago for the oldest ones. The most optimistic estimates refer to the last ice age, a time when our ancestors were still hunting mammoths. The results suggest that these are the highest temperatures in the Arctic over the last 115,000 years.
For researchers, we are beyond a strictly natural phenomenon. "You'd normally expect to see different plant ages in different topographical conditions," chips in principal investigator Simon Pendleton, expert in glacial geology at the University of Colorado Boulder. "A high elevation location might hold onto its ice longer, for example. But the magnitude of warming is so high that everything is melting everywhere now," he continued. "We haven't seen anything as pronounced as this before."