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Canadian Glacial Melt Uncovers Ancient Landscapes Hidden For 40,000 Years

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An image of Baffin Bay, free of winter ice, in 2002. Researchers said that the melting glaciers in the Arctic are exposing landscapes that have never been seen in over 40,000 years. From Baffin Island, they collected samples of ancient plants preserved in ice in the region.   ( Jacques Descloitres, MODIS Land Rapid Response Team | NASA/GSFC )

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.

A team of researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder went to the Baffin Island, west of Greenland to study the effects of global warming on the Arctic. They collected samples of plants preserved from ancient landscapes and have now been exposed due to the rapidly melting glaciers.

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.

Ancient Landscape Exposed By Melting Glacier

Baffin is the world's fifth largest island. It is dominated with fjords separated by plateaus. According to the researchers, these plateaus act like ancient ice storage where moss and lichens have been frozen and preserved for millennia.

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

"The Arctic is currently 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 doctoral researcher and the lead author of the study.

Pendleton and his team took it as an opportunity to study the ancient landscape that has long been buried under ice. In August, they went to Baffin Island to collect 48 plant samples from 30 different ice caps. They used radiocarbon dating to determine the age of the plants and how long they have been covered in ice.

The team also sampled quartz from each site to establish the age and history of the landscape. Upon analysis, the researchers found that samples collected from all locations have been covered in ice in the past 40,000 years.

Warmest Century

The study also found that Baffin Island is currently experiencing its warmest century in 115,000 years. More alarmingly, the region might be ice-free in a few centuries, the researchers warned.

"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, a professor of geological sciences and a senior author of the study. "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."

Pendleton added that normally, ice in high elevation would hold on longer. However, because of the magnitude of heating, ice is melting everywhere at the same rate.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.

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