Most of us have heard the tale that Norse explorers named “Iceland” intentionally to dissuade others from taking the land. They also called a different icy island “Greenland” to encourage explorers to look in that direction instead. Perhaps the Norse knew something we didn’t?
The story begins during the Cold War, when the US Army established Camp Century in northwestern Greenland, as part of Project Iceworm. Their mission was to install a network of nuclear missile launch sites that could survive a first strike. (Ironically, a nuclear reactor also powered the station. Wasn’t that a vulnerability?)
As cover for this super-secret nuclear project, US Army scientists began deep drilling into the ice in the name of scientific exploration. In 1966, they extracted a fifteen-foot-long sample from nearly a mile down.
Initially, a military base in New Hampshire received the sample. Next, the core went to Dr. Chester Langway at the University of Buffalo. Dr. Langway had led the project at the dig site. As time marched forward, new, deeper samples were collected in Greenland and elsewhere. The Camp Century core was no longer in high demand and was shipped to an ice repository at the University of Copenhagen for storage. Then, the sample was “lost.”
The core was rediscovered in 2017 when the Copenhagen team was moving samples to a new freezer.
Since then, an international team of scientists comprised of Andrew Christ and Paul Bierman of the University of Vermont, Joerg Schaefer at Columbia University, and Dorthe Dahl-Jensen at the University of Copenhagen, together have studied the sample. It included not just soil, as was expected, but also unique fossilized plants and other biomolecules.
Their results show that at least part of Greenland must have been ice-free sometime within the last million years, perhaps even as recently as a few hundred thousand years ago. The organic matter suggests that there was a time when Greenland was covered with forest, possibly fir and spruce trees, as well as lichen and moss.
Unfortunately, this finding signals yet another dangerous outcome as a result of our growing climate crisis. Greenland’s ice sheets have previously melted without the influence of human activity. It is likely to do so again under the current conditions. When it does, the oceans will rise sufficiently to flood coastal cities.
The University of Vermont team included a short video to explain the connection to this research: https://youtu.be/Ota2-eEN41w
Background on Camp Century – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Century
Rediscovering the core – https://www.uvm.edu/uvmnews/news/secrets-under-ice
Scientific paper – https://www.pnas.org/content/118/13/e2021442118