CU Boulder-led study tracks dramatic retreat of Canadian glaciers


Rapidly retreating Arctic glaciers have revealed ancient moss and lichens, ice-free for the first time in 40,000 years, according to new analysis by researchers at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

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

The plants can give researchers a peek into the history of the location, determine the last time that summers were as warm in the past century as they are today, and when the ice that covered the landscape had advanced. The island has experienced significant summertime warming in recent decades.

Pendleton said the Arctic is now warming three times faster than the rest of the globe, hastening the retreat of the glaciers. From Baffin Island, they collected samples of ancient plants preserved in ice in the region.

A team of researchers is already exploring the regions of land that appeared on Baffin Island, one of the biggest islands known to man.

"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.

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In August, they went to Baffin Island to collect 48 plant samples from 30 different ice caps. In some summers, there would be thaw, but in general low temperatures and snow has kept things at equilibrium. The glaciers are a reliable way of keep track of temperature changes since they respond directly to the changes that take place.

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.

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.

Under normal cooling and warming patterns, scientists would expect to find a wider range of plant ages, with some areas having previously melted and others remaining frozen. "A high elevation location might hold onto its ice longer, for example", Pendleton said in a statement from the university.

"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.

According to the study, these results, combined with data from ice cores taken on Baffin Island and Greenland, suggest that the region is now experiencing its warmest century in 115,000 years.