Research has revealed that the Arctic is in danger of losing its ice-covered regions. According to scientists, Earth’s northern polar regions could become void of Ice, returning to a green lush environment that existed on Earth some 125,000 years ago during the Last Interglacial period.
If we could travel back in time to around 125,000 years ago and fly over Earth’s northern pole, we would find woody shrubs covering vast regions.
This was so during the last interglacial period, where temperatures were much higher than they are today. However, this could change I the near future as scientists say that the 125,000-year-old scenario could repeat in the near future due to uncontrollable global warming. Unlike other regions on Earth, the Arctic is warming up much faster, in response to rising temperatures.
To find out what the Arctic was like during the last interglacial period, researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder analyzed plant DNA recovered from lake sediments in the Arctic (the oldest DNA in lake sediments analyzed in one publication to date).
What they found was evidence of a shrub native to the ecosystems of northern Canada 400 kilometers further north than its current geographic limit. This essentially allowed scientists to “peer back in time” and see what the region was like when it was void of Ice.
But instead of just looking at the past, the researchers say that they are likely also looking at the future as regions that are now covered with ice could turn lush and green, just as they were hundreds of thousands of years ago.
“We have this really rare view into a particularly warm period in the past that was arguably the most recent time that it was warmer than present in the Arctic. That makes it a really useful analog for what we might expect in the future,” explained Sarah Crump, who conducted the work as a Ph.D. student in geological sciences and then a postdoctoral researcher with the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research (INSTAAR).
Not only did the researchers analyze a series of DNA samples, but they traveled to a remote region of the Arctic on ATVs and snowmobiles to collect examples and specimens and bring them back to a laboratory to study.
One particular species caught their attention: Betula nana, or the dwarf birch.
Dwarf birch is a keystone species of the lower arctic tundra, where slightly taller shrubs can grow in a cold and inhospitable environment. However, dwarf birch currently does not survive beyond the southern part of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic.
Nevertheless, the researchers found DNA from this plant in ancient lake sediment showing that it used to grow much further north.
The distribution of the tundra today is very different from what it was over one hundred thousand years ago.
By looking at lake sediments and their contents, researchers can better understand the ecosystems of the past, and what types of plants grew in regions that are now covered in ice.
“It’s a pretty significant difference,” explained Crump.
One must bear in mind that there are various ecological effects that can help dwarf birch grow in distant northern regions. Nonetheless, Crump and her colleague analyzed shrubs that grew in the Arctic and examined the climatic reactions related to them.
The researchers discovered that between 116,000 and 125,000 years ago, plants that lived in a green and lush arctic had thousands of years to adjust and move in response to warmer temperatures.
Today’s ecosystems don’t have that privilege. In fact, there is evidence already now that vegetation cannot cope with rapid temperature growth.
With today’s rapid rate of warming, the vegetation is likely not keeping pace, but that doesn’t mean it won’t play an important role in impacting everything from thawing permafrost to melting glaciers and sea-level rise.
Based on current measurements, the researchers explain that Arctic regions could see a drastic increase of 9 degrees Fahrenheit (5 degrees Celsius) by the year 2100, which is similar to the temperatures that existed on Earth during the lat Interglacial period, some 125,000 years ago.
Let’s take care of Earth. After all, we can’t escape it, at least not now.
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