Greenland: Plants found mile under ice rewrite island’s frozen history ‘Can quickly melt’

University of Vermont discuss fossil plants beneath Greenland

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Researchers from the University of Vermont in the US made the discovery more than 50 years after the ice was collected by a top-secret US Army project. In 1996, army scientists drilled nearly a mile into northeastern Greenland and recovered a 4,560ft-deep tube of ice. A 15ft section of dirty sediments from the bottom was ignored and forgotten, left behind in a Danish freezer. That is until it was rediscovered in 2017.

Two years ago, Vermont scientist Andrew Christ took the tube to a microscope to study the dirt sample.

Much to his surprise, the sediments were mixed with twigs and leaves – a strong indicator Greenland’s landscape once measure up to its name.

Dr Christ said: “Ice sheets typically pulverise and destroy everything in their path 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 findings were published this week in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Greenland is mostly covered in ice today but the discovery suggests it may have once been covered in green tundra.

A similar landscape can still be seen today in eastern Greenland.

In the past year, an international team of scientists led by researchers at Vermont, Columbia University and the University of Copenhagen studied the sediments and plant fossils.

Greenland: Expert explores impact of island's ice melting

The researchers determined Greenland must have been almost entirely ice free within the last million years or possibly even the last few hundred thousands years.

And the implications of this discovery are troubling when man-made climate change is taken into consideration.

If Greenland could completely melt away without the added pressure of anthropogenic global warming, what will happen now that greenhouse emissions are warming the planet?

The Greenland ice sheet holds enough water to raise the global sea level by 20ft.

That is enough water to flood coastal metropolitan cities like London, Boston and Miami.

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By studying Greenland’s prehistoric environment, the researchers hope to learn more about how the island responds to climate change.

In particular, scientists want to know how much of the ice could melt in the future and how quickly.

Dr Christ said: “Our study shows that Greenland is much more sensitive to natural climate warming than we used to think – and we already know that humanity’s out-of-control warming of the planet hugely exceeds the natural rate.”

The researchers believe their findings provide some of the best evidence to date that Greenland is much more susceptible to climate change than previously thought.

Paul Bierman, a geoscientist at UVM, said: “This is not a 20 generation problem. This is an urgent problem for the next 50 years.”

He added: “Greenland may seem far away but it can quickly melt, pouring enough into the oceans that New York, Miami, Dhaka—pick your city—will go underwater.”

The ice cores were collected in the 1960s by a secret Cold War military base.

The base was drilling into the ice in a top-secret effort to hide some 600 nuclear warheads from the Soviet Union.

The US Army called the effort Project Iceworm and disguised its operations as a polar science station.

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