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News – Glacier melting exposes 40,000-year-old Baffin Island plants

ISLAND OF BAFFIN | Ice melting

CBC News

Wednesday, January 30, 2019, at 3:49 p.m. – The polar melting ice caps are exposing plants on Baffin Island that have been frozen for more than 40,000 years, according to a new study, prompting the lead author to believe that the last century of warming was greater than in any other in recent 115 thousand years.

Simon Pendleton, PhD researcher at the University of Boulder, Colorado, began investigating the plants in the base of polar caps in 2013.

Pendleton's PhD consultant, Gifford Miller, was then working on the island and noted that as the glaciers melted, they revealed the soil beneath them, including some plants that were upright and rooted.

(RELATED: Glaciers are melting at their fastest pace in 400 years)

"They're really discrete," Pendleton said. "They are the dirty brown lumps that are sitting next to the edge of the ice."

They took samples of about 150 polar ice caps at the end of August and September when they are in their smaller size.

For the study, the researchers collected plants on the edges of the polar caps and sent them to a laboratory where they were carbon dated, which allowed them to find out more or less how old they are.

But carbon dating is limited and could only tell researchers that the plants of 30 of the polar caps were over 40,000 years old. So they looked for other research to find out what the weather was like 40,000 years ago and concluded that the plants had to be frozen before.

"You're right in the middle of the last glacial period … Yellowknife would be under a large chunk of ice several thousand feet thick," Pendleton said.

He said the most recent time when the temperature was close to what it is today would be 115,000 years ago, prompting him to assume that the plants have been frozen since.

Miller raises samples of old plants collected near ice glacial streams near Baffin Island. (Photo by Matthew Kennedy)

He said one of the advantages of experimenting on glaciers is that they are "purely reactionary."

"If the climate worsens, the glacier will shrink, the climate cools and the glaciers expand, and so its fluctuations are another direct record of past climate change."

But he said the research has to be done fairly quickly and regularly to be a good indicator because "once these plants are exposed, they are removed from the landscape by the wind and water, or they will actually regress."

When this happens, the data is lost.

(RELATED: Antarctic ice melt seems to be accelerating)

"There's a kind of race against the clock in terms of getting the data, because once the glaciers are gone and the plants are removed or regressed, you lose the file forever."

He said the glaciers are retreating at an incredible pace. "Some of them will disappear within a decade," Pendleton said of the smaller, finer glaciers.

Pendleton also said that some of the plants found were much younger, and the plant age had a great reach. He said the study does not indicate any call to action. Instead, it's a glimpse into the state of the glaciers in the region at this time.

"The amount of action needed now would have to be extremely large to return to the current climate," he said.

A melting ice cap in the Baffin Island region. (Photo by Matthew Kennedy)


Some residents of the area noticed a change in the ice blocks.

Billy Arnaquq, 60, lived in Qikiqtarjuaq, off the east coast of Baffin Island, throughout his life. He has been working in the area for 18 years and said that he took customers to go hiking in Penny Ice Caps, where many of the plant samples were collected and noticed a change in ice.

He said that 10 years ago, there was an area in the ice caps where people ski, but not anymore.

"[It’s] very dangerous, a lot of fissure and some people were still falling, "he said.

In addition, he took an artist to the region's glaciers 11 years ago to take pictures and make paintings. He recently took the same artist around the area again and said that the change in landscape was astounding.

So much melted [in] 11 years, "said Arnaquq.

It's not just the melt he noticed.

"The glacier used to be pure white. A large area closer to the water became … muddy.

"When you get there, it melts much faster … it seems [to] accelerate the merger process ".

Arnaquq said he is not worried about the ice melt because communities are good at adapting to climate change.

This article was written for the CBC by Jamie Malbeuf.


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