When Greenland was a warm place

On 14-15 August 2021 it rained for the first time since records began at the highest point on the Greenland ice cap. Summit Camp at 3.216 m is run by the US National Science Foundation, which set it up in 1989, and is famous for climate data gleaned from two deep ice cores there. This odd event came at a time when surface melting of the ice cap covered 870 thousand km2: over half of its total 1.7 million km2 extent: a sure sign of global warming. The average maximum temperature in August at Summit is -14°C, but since the mid 20th century the Arctic has been warming at about twice the global rate. Under naturally fluctuating climatic conditions during the Pleistocene, associated with glacial-interglacial cycles, Greenland may have been ice-free for extended periods, perhaps as long as a quarter of a million years around 1.1 Ma ago. If 75% of the up to 3 km thick ice on Greenland melted that would add 5 to 6 m to global sea level, perhaps as early as 2100 if current rates of climate warming persist.

The edge of the ice cap in NE Greenland (credit: Wikipedia)

The worst scenario is runaway warming on the scale of that which took place 56 Ma ago during the Palaeocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM) when global mean temperature rose by between 5 to 8°C at a rate comparable with what the planet is experiencing now as a result of growth in the world economy. In fact, the CO2 released during the PETM emerged at a rate that was only about tenth of modern anthropogenic emissions  Sediments that span the Palaeocene-Eocene boundary occur in NE Greenland, a study of which was recently published by scientists from Denmark, Greenland, the UK, Australia and Poland (Hovikoski, J. and 13 others 2021. Paleocene-Eocene volcanic segmentation of the Norwegian-Greenland seaway reorganized high-latitude ocean circulation. Communications Earth & Environment, v. 2, article 172; DOI: 10.1038/s43247-021-00249-w). The greenhouse world of NE Greenland that lay between 70 and 80°N then, as it still does, was an area alternating between shallow marine and terrestrial conditions, the latter characterised by coastal plain and floodplain sediments deposited in estuaries, deltas and lakes. They include coals derived from lush, wooded swamps, inhabited by hippo-like ungulates, primates and reptiles.

At that time the opening of the northern part of the North Atlantic had barely begun, with little chance for an equivalent of the Gulf Stream to have had a warming influence on the Arctic. Shortly after the PETM volcanism began in earnest, to form the flood basalts of the North Atlantic Igneous Province. Each lava flow is capped by red soil or bole: further evidence for a warm, humid climate and rapid chemical weathering. As well as lava build-up, tectonic forces resulted in uplift, effectively opening migration routes for animals and land plants to colonise the benign – for such high latitudes – conditions and perhaps escape the far hotter conditions further south.

The situation now is much different, with the potential for even more rapid melting of the Greenland ice cap to flood freshwater into the North Atlantic, as is currently beginning. Diluting surface seawater reduces its density and thus its tendency to sink, which is the main driving force that pulls warmer water towards high-latitudes in the form of the Gulf Stream. Slowing and even shutting down its influence may have an effect that contradicts the general tendency for global warming – a cooling trend at mid- to high latitudes with chaotic effects on atmospheric pressure systems, the jet stream and weather in general.

See also: Barham, M. et al. 2021. When Greenland was green: rapid global warming 55 million years ago shows us what the future may hold. The Conversation, 23 August 2021.

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