Environment

Fossilized plants discovered a mile beneath Greenland ice sheet

Fossilized plants discovered a...
Scientists have discovered fossilized plants almost a mile under the Greenland ice sheet, which has worrying implications for climate change
Scientists have discovered fossilized plants almost a mile under the Greenland ice sheet, which has worrying implications for climate change
View 3 Images
Two samples of the soil, as taken from the bottom of the large ice core
1/3
Two samples of the soil, as taken from the bottom of the large ice core
The soil samples from the ice core drilled deep beneath the Greenland ice sheet contained clear evidence of fossilized plant life
2/3
The soil samples from the ice core drilled deep beneath the Greenland ice sheet contained clear evidence of fossilized plant life
Scientists have discovered fossilized plants almost a mile under the Greenland ice sheet, which has worrying implications for climate change
3/3
Scientists have discovered fossilized plants almost a mile under the Greenland ice sheet, which has worrying implications for climate change
View gallery - 3 images

Scientists have made the surprising discovery of fossilized plants 1.4 km (0.9 miles) beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. That indicates the island has been ice-free within the last million years or so – meaning it’s more vulnerable to climate change than we thought.

Science is no stranger to finding unexpected things beneath ice sheets and glaciers. In recent years researchers have discovered mountain ranges, gigantic meteor craters, and even bacteria thriving in a frigid environment assumed too cold for life.

Now, researchers at the University of Vermont have found something in an ice core drilled from almost a mile beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. The bottom 4.6 m (15 ft) or so was frozen sediment, complete with plant matter like twigs, moss and leaves. That might not sound like anything too exciting, but the team was expecting to find mostly sand and rock.

“Ice sheets typically pulverize and destroy everything in their path,” says Andrew Christ, an author of the study. “But what we discovered was delicate plant structures – perfectly preserved. They’re fossils, but they look like they died yesterday. It’s a time capsule of what used to live on Greenland that we wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else.”

The soil samples from the ice core drilled deep beneath the Greenland ice sheet contained clear evidence of fossilized plant life
The soil samples from the ice core drilled deep beneath the Greenland ice sheet contained clear evidence of fossilized plant life

The team dated the matter in the ice core using a few different methods. The researchers studied the ratios of isotopes of aluminum and beryllium, which can reveal how long a sample has been buried. Luminescence studies show when sediment was last exposed to light. Radiocarbon dating of wood in the samples indicated their age. And oxygen isotopes in the ice revealed that the original precipitation fell at much lower elevations than the current ice sheet.

All together, these analyses indicated that Greenland was entirely, or at least largely, free of ice at some point in the last million years or so, and perhaps in the last few hundred thousand years. Instead, part or all of Greenland may have been covered in vegetation, maybe even things as large as trees.

Two samples of the soil, as taken from the bottom of the large ice core
Two samples of the soil, as taken from the bottom of the large ice core

Finding these frozen plants may sound like an intriguing curiosity, but the researchers say there’s a concerning implication to the discovery. It suggests that the Greenland Ice Sheet is more susceptible to climate change than anticipated – which is a problem, considering it contains enough ice that, if it were to completely melt, it would raise sea levels by 7.2 m (24 ft) alone. Worse still, a recent report found that the ice sheet has lost 3.8 trillion tonnes of ice since 1992, and the rate is accelerating.

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The team describes the work in the video below.

FOSSIL PLANTS found beneath MILE-DEEP GREENLAND ICE—indicating risk of rapid sea-level rise

Source: University of Vermont

View gallery - 3 images
15 comments
lee54
" – meaning it’s more vulnerable to climate change than we thought."

Not sure how you reached that conclusion. What it really means is that climate change is perfectly natural and normal, and not a potential catastrophe for life on earth. A million years is a mere instant in the scale of time, and we and all the other life forms on earth made it through this past warming just fine.
jerryd
Since it has had 8-10 warming periods/ice ages in the last million yrs, why is that a surprise?
Robert Stiles
The last cataclysm was around 12000 years ago. How they come up with a million years is beyond me. The world is more vulnerable to cataclysm - not climate change.
Pablo
Why is literally EVERYTHING "worrying" when it comes to climate change? It used to be referred to as Global Warming, but then it got cold again, so it was renamed Climate Change. I'm old enough to remember being harped at endlessly about CFCs. We'd burnt a hole in the ozone over Antarctica, and it was going to be at LEAST 50,000 years if ever, before it healed. Fast forward less than 20 years, and stopping use in a few countries has miraculously fixed the problem. (so now the Media and talking heads needed something new to yap about...) Of course, I can still buy a can of R12 off the hardware store shelf in Mexico, so... Maybe the sky really isn't falling?
Chris Coles
First point is to suggest that everyone concerned with the research read; Earth's Shifting Crust by Charles Hapgood, which shows that all ice ages were not caused by a change in temperature, but instead by ice above sea level changing the rotational dynamics of the planet, in turn causing the crust to shift. An example being that there is much evidence that during the last ice age, the north pole was positioned between Hudson Bay and the Southern tip of Greenland.

Next is a point I had raised some years ago; that we need to see Greenland as a gigantic dam, where the water is frozen. When we do that we can see that the same dynamics apply as with water filled dams. Taking a 2 Km high dam behind which is flowing water, (rather than solid ice), the present flow of melt water down the drainage holes from the surface give a 2.4 TW kinetic energy input to the base of the ice. As I understand the mechanics of the ice skate, the weight of the skater causes the ice to melt under the blade; now imagine a 2 km high ice sheet having it's base melted by the massive flow of kinetic energy, reducing the base area of the ice to the point where the weight alone will melt the ice at the base. In which case we may come to see a similar event to the Twin Towers collapse; that the ice sheet might some day, simply start to collapse, as the weight of the ice melts the base beyond the point of stability. In which case, we might see the total collapse within one summer.
aki009
During the last ice age sea levels were more than 100 meters lower than they are now. The concept of a 7 meter rise has me shaking in my boots... laughing.
PaleDale
A 7.2m rise would be catastrophic, so much good arable land would be lost not to mention living space in a lot of already crowded countries. A lot of island nations would be gone and have to relocate and given most countries treatment of refuges, how do you think that would work out? And if you think it wont effect you because you live at a high elevation you are wrong. Yeah we would adapt and carry on but to brush it off as nothing is just dumb.
Jinpa
To aki009, during the Last Glacial Maximum, what was the population of Earth, what percent of the current population lives within the area which will be flooded by a 24-ft sea level rise, and where will those people go? What kinds of chaos will those migrations cause?Where do you live, so would your home there be affected? Climate change won't affect just sea level. Melting Greenland's ice likely would destroy the Gulf Stream's flow by fresh water overriding salt water in the North Atlantic, so all of western Europe will lose that warming and temperature stability. Then there will be the expansion, creation and shifting of rainfall deficits, in a lot of places. worldwide. Will (y)our children, or theirs, enjoy all of this?
toni24
If the Antarctic Continent was ice free enough for it to be drawn as two separate land masses in the Piri Reise map from before the Byzantine Empire; a fact we did not know prior to 1964, why is anyone so surprised that Greenland was ice free. It was ice free during the age of the first Viking voyages
Sciencie
Maybe what worries them is the fact that Greenland was ice free , and warm when C02 was low indicating C02 has nothing to do with global warming , surprise surprise.