Greenland’s ice sheet may have disappeared much later than previously thought, allowing plants and trees to not only appear on this northern land, but to abound for quite some time.
Frozen soil collected in Greenland during a covert military operation during the Cold War hid an incredible secret: Buried fossils, which may be a million years old, contain clear traces of plants. Recent analysis has shown that the plants are so well-preserved that they “look like they were frozen yesterday,” scientists say.
U.S. Army experts drilled into a glacier in northwest Greenland in 1966 as part of Project Iceworm, a secret mission to create an underground base hiding hundreds of nuclear warheads where they would be within reach of the Soviet Union. The Arctic research station Camp Century became the Army’s cover for the project. But the project stalled, the base was abandoned, and the ice core was forgotten in a freezer in Denmark until it was discovered again in 2017.
When scientists examined the findings in 2019, they found fragments of fossilized plants that may have bloomed a million years ago. The current Greenland ice sheet was thought to be nearly 3 million years old, but the tiny plant fragments show that at some point during the last million years — perhaps during the last few hundred thousand years — much of Greenland was free of ice.
If the new study is confirmed and much of Greenland’s ice disappeared relatively recently, this does not bode well for the stability of its current ice sheet in response to human-caused climate change.