Scientists found frozen plant fossils, preserved under a mile of ice on Greenland. The discovery helps confirm a new and troubling understanding that the Greenland Ice Sheet has melted entirely during recent warm periods in Earth's history -- like the one we are now creating with human-caused climate change. The new study provides strong evidence that Greenland is more sensitive to climate change than previously understood -- and at risk of irreversibly melting.
In 1966, US Army scientists drilled down through nearly a mile of ice in northwestern Greenland -- and pulled up a fifteen-foot-long tube of dirt from the bottom. Then this frozen sediment was lost in a freezer for decades. It was accidentally rediscovered in 2017.
In 2019, University of Vermont scientist Andrew Christ looked at it through his microscope -- and couldn't believe what he was seeing: twigs and leaves instead of just sand and rock. That suggested that the ice was gone in the recent geologic past -- and that a vegetated landscape, perhaps a boreal forest, stood where a mile-deep ice sheet as big as Alaska stands today.
Over the last year, Christ and an international team of scientists -- led by Paul Bierman at UVM, Joerg Schaefer at Columbia University and Dorthe Dahl-Jensen at the University of Copenhagen -- have studied these one-of-a-kind fossil plants and sediment from the bottom of Greenland. Their results show that most, or all, of Greenland must have been ice-free within the last million years, perhaps even the last few hundred-thousand years.