How permanent is the Greenland ice sheet?

80% of the world’s largest island is sheathed in glacial ice up to 3 km thick, amounting to 2.85 million km3. A tenth as large as the Antarctic ice sheet, if melted it could still add over 7 m to global sea level if it melted completely; compared with 58 m should Antarctica suffer the same fate. Antarctica accumulated glacial ice from about 34 to 24 million years ago during the Oligocene Epoch, deglaciated to became largely ice free until about 12 Ma and then assumed a permanent, albeit fluctuating, ice cap until today. In contrast, Greenland only became cold enough to support semi-permanent ice cover from about 2.4 Ma during the late-Pliocene to present episode of ice-age and interglacial cycles. The base of the GRIP ice core from central Greenland has been dated at 1 Ma old, but such is the speed of ice movement driven by far higher snow precipitation than in Antarctica that it is possible that basal ice is shifted seawards. The deepest layers recovered by drilling have lost their annual layering as a result of ice’s tendency to deform in a plastic fashion so do not preserve detailed glacial history before about 110 ka. In contrast, the more slowly accumulating and more sluggishly moving Antarctic ice records over 800 ka of climatic cyclicity in continuous cores and has yielded 2.7 Ma old blue ice exposed at the surface with another 2 km lying beneath it.

However, sediments at the base of two ice cores from Greenland have raised the possibility of periods when the island was free of ice. One such example is from an early core drilled to a depth of 1390 m beneath the 1960’s US military’s nuclear weapons base, Camp Century. It helped launch the use of continental ice as a repository of Earth recent climatic history at a far better resolution than do sediment cores from the ocean floors. It languished in cold storage after it was transferred from the US to the University of Copenhagen. Recently, samples from the bottom 3 m of sediment-rich ice were rediscovered in glass jars. A workshop centring on this seemingly unprepossessing material took place in the last week of October 2019 at the University of Vermont, USA (Voosen, P. 2019. Mud in stored ice core hints at thawed Greenland. Science, v. 366, p. 556-557; DOI: 10.1126/science.366.6465.556.

Sediment recovered from the base of the Camp Century core through the Greenland ice sheet (credit Jean-Louis Tison, Free University of Brussels)

To the participants’ astonishment, among the pebbles and sand were fragments of moss and woody material. It was not till, but a soil; Greenland had once lost its ice cover. Measurement of radioactive isotopes 26Al and 10Be, that form when cosmic rays pass through exposed sand grains, revealed that the once vegetated soil had formed at about 400 ka. Preliminary DNA analyses of preserved plant material indicates species that would have thrived at around 10°C. Samples have been shared widely for comprehensive analysis  to reconstruct the kind of surface environment that developed during the 400 ka interglacial. Also, Greenland may have been bare of ice during several such relatively warm intervals. So other cores to the base of the ice may be in the funding pipeline. But most interest centres on the implications of a period of rapid anthropogenic climatic warming that may take Arctic temperatures above those that melted the Greenland ice sheet 400 ka ago.

See also: UVM Today 2019. Secrets under the ice.

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