Once Greenland was actually green, according to researchers who believe the island was ice-free about 400,000 years ago. The finding could change our view of climate change.
Greenland is the largest island in the world and is almost entirely covered by a layer of ice about three kilometers long, the thickest. If all ice today were to melt, sea level would rise by about seven meters.
But relatively recently, in a scientific time perspective, the island was ice-free and covered with lush nature.
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Tests of soil samples taken from the secret American Greenland base Camp Century show that this was the case around 400,000 years ago. The samples were taken from the US military, which pierced a 1,400-meter-thick ice sheet in the 60s.
Lying on ice
For unknown reasons, soil samples were frozen and stored in Denmark. Only in 2017 was it finally analyzed by a team from the University of Vermont.
Geologist Paul Bierman says he found something on the ground that he could not identify, and asked his colleague Andrew Christ to take a look at it.
– He looked at the microscope and made an exclamation point. It was a branch that was buried under a mile-thick layer of ice. Unbelievable! Bierman tells AFP news agency.
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Bierman and colleagues now present the findings of the study in the renowned research journal PNAS. They concluded that the soil samples belonged to a time when Greenland was covered with moss, lichen, and even trees.
Fragile than expected
The finding causes concern among researchers. Until now, it was thought that there would be more than 415 parts of CO2 present in the atmosphere before the Greenland ice sheet collapsed.
But 415 parts per million is historically high and a very rapid increase from 285 parts per million when fossil fuels started in the mid-19th century.
Bierman says natural variations over a million years are between 180 and 290 parts per million.
The final conclusion is that the ice sheet is more fragile than previously thought. This means that if people continue to burn fossil fuels, they will be able to reach the threshold much faster at the point where they experience excessive ice melting.
Consequences for coastal areas
The forecast used by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) today estimates that sea levels will rise by about one meter by the end of the century, that is, by the time today’s children age.
Hundreds of millions of people will be affected in areas below sea level worldwide, including the coastal areas of Scandinavia. According to the Norwegian Environment Agency’s 2015 report, the biggest consequences of sea level rise in Norway are expected to be in Sørlandet, Vestlandet, Lofoten and Finnmark “Future sea level and storm surge in Norwegian coastal municipalities”.
However, this is a very limited estimate of the seven meters you will see if the ice in Greenland melts and Greenland turns green again.
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