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"We travel to the retreating ice margins, sample newly exposed plants preserved on these ancient landscapes and carbon date the plants to get a sense of when the ice last advanced over that location", Pendleton explained. Like the rest of the Arctic circle, the region is experiencing warming at a rate twice the global average - so much so that plants and moss that haven't been exposed since the last ice age are now starting to creep through the melting ice.
Researchers studying glacial retreat on Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic have discovered landscapes and plant life that have not been seen for more than 40,000 years. In some regions, the current edge of the ice cap is up to a football field's length away from the previous edge from only a couple years ago. Where glaciers flow and grind down on the earth beneath them, ice caps are static.
"The high elevation landscapes that host these landscapes are striking in their own right, but knowing that the surface that you are walking on has been ice covered for millennia, and only now being exposed, is humbling", lead study author Simon Pendleton told MNN. "But by using what our data says about continuous cover for the last 40,000 years, and using the temperature records, we can speculate that they have been continuously ice-covered for the last 120,000 years".
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"Our last century of warmth is likely greater than any century in the last 120,000 years". The latter conserves lichens and moss in their original position in the ice for periods of time lasting thousands of years - a little like a cryogenic chamber.
Pendleton and others collected samples from around 30 ice caps and conducted radiocarbon dating to determine their age. Year to year, since Pendleton first came to the island in 2005, he has seen ice gradually retreating from the edge of the ice cap.
The modern-day retreat of glaciers and ice caps on Baffin Island are revealing plants preserved beneath them that can shed light on the last time the Arctic was as warm as it is now.
Pendleton said radiocarbon dating's effectiveness only goes back about 40,000 years; hence, his findings that ice coverage of the region under study goes back "at least" 40,000 years.
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According to the study, these results, combined with data from ice cores taken on Baffin Island and Greenland, suggest that the region is now experiencing its warmest century in 115,000 years.
"These trends are likely to continue and remove all ice from Baffin Island within the next few centuries", the study concluded, "even in the absence of additional summer warming".
As ice caps recede even further, scientists could expose even more ancient landscapes.
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