Arctic summers may be hotter now than they have been for 115,000 years, according to new research.
Evidence that this century is the warmest the region has faced for millennia came from plants collected in the remote wilderness of Baffin Island.
As glaciers melt in the Canadian Arctic, landscapes are emerging that have not been ice-free for more than 40,000 years.
While providing worrying evidence of climate change taking place, this also allows scientists to investigate previously inaccessible areas.
“The Arctic is currently warming two to three times faster than the rest of the globe, so naturally, glaciers and ice caps are going to react faster,” said Simon Pendleton, a PhD student at the University of Colorado at Boulder who led the research.
“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.”
The Arctic ice has effectively preserved ancient mosses and lichens for thousands of years, providing the scientists with a valuable insight into the past.
They sampled around 50 plants from 30 ice caps in the region, as well as rock samples to confirm the age and history of ice coverage across the landscape.
Radiocarbon dating of the plants collected from these ice-free margins revealed it had been tens of thousands of years since they had last thawed.
“You’d normally expect to see different plant ages in different topographical conditions,” explained Mr Pendleton.
“A high elevation location might hold on to its ice longer, for example. But the magnitude of warming is so high that everything is melting everywhere now.”
This information, combined with data from ice cores taken on Baffin Island and Greenland, suggested the region is currently experiencing its warmest century for 115,000 years.
The researchers also suggested that the island was likely to be completely devoid of ice within the next few centuries. Their results were published in the journal Nature Communications.
In their most recent assessment of the Arctic environment, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, a US government agency, found the region had been warmer for the past five years than at any other point since 1900 when records began.
The impacts of this rapid warming include earlier plankton blooms, more extreme weather and a massive decline in reindeer populations.
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