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  • Over half a century ago, scientists at a secret Cold War military base in Greenland

  • took samples from deep beneath the island's ice sheet.

  • This frozen time capsule was forgotten for decades, until it was accidentally unearthed from a storage freezer.

  • Now, researchers are using these samples to gain insights into Greenland's climate history

  • and to get a clearer picture of its future as Earth's climate warms.

  • "We finally picked this plateau. A smooth, white plane of ice for as far as you can see."

  • Back in 1959, the U.S. army created Project Iceworm to hide hundreds of nuclear missiles

  • under the ice of northwestern Greenland. Their cover story?

  • Project Iceworm was just a polar science station named 'Camp Century!'

  • The base had twenty-one tunnels, a movie theater, hot showers, a chapel, chemistry labs,

  • enough room for 200 residents, and the world's first portable nuclear reactor.

  • Project Iceworm, and Camp Century, were eventually abandoned due to a heady mix of political disagreement and unstable ice conditions.

  • But since Camp Century was, after all, a polar science station,

  • researchers had already done some important work before the whole operation shut down.

  • Although they may not have realized it at the time.

  • In 1966, the team dug nearly 1400 meters down into the ice sheet.

  • When they finally hit dirt, they took a few cookie jars worth of samples before stopping.

  • Those samples were labeled, preserved in a freezer, and subsequently forgotten.

  • Fast forward half a century later, when after their accidental rediscovery,

  • scientists began investigating them for the first time.

  • And what they found was stunning.

  • Not only did the samples contain sand and rock, but they also contained the fossilized remains of plant material!

  • Let me emphasize that again, these are perfectly preserved plants!

  • Unlike bones or teeth, soft plant tissues are usually destroyed before they become fossilized.

  • You need really specific conditions and a little bit of luck, to preserve them.

  • Past studies have suggested that Greenland was free of ice more than a million years ago.

  • But these Camp Century samples contained perfectly preserved fossilized plants, which throws that entire timeline into question.

  • Ice sheets tend to destroy what's in their path, and since plant tissue is especially delicate,

  • this means Greenland may have been ice-free much more recently than we previously thought.

  • To help figure out this timeline, the team first looked at an oxygen isotope within the pores of the sediment.

  • After running tests on the isotope, they hypothesized that precipitation must have fallen at much lower elevations than the ice sheet's current height

  • which means the ice sheet that we know today wasn't there at the time.

  • Next, the scientists looked at the radioactive isotopes of aluminum and beryllium.

  • These two isotopes form in minerals that are on Earth's surface, left exposed to the Sun's cosmic rays.

  • While the aluminum isotope forms seven times faster than beryllium, it decays twice as fast once cut off from Earth's surface

  • in this case, by the ice.

  • By comparing the degradation rate of these two isotopes, the team was able to figure out

  • how long all of that plant material in the ice core samples was on Earth's surface

  • and how long it had been buried for.

  • And their findings have some pretty scary implications.

  • They estimate that the soil and plant remains could be from over a million years ago, or as recent as 400,000 years ago.

  • This may spell trouble. A Greenland that's melted off in recent geological history is a sensitive Greenland.

  • That said, by knowing the history of Greenland's ice sheet, we can better predict the consequences of our intensifying climate crisis.

  • Greenland's ice sheet is about three times the size of Texas, and if it all melts, the seas would rise by as much as seven meters.

  • That's as tall as a two story building, enough to flood coastal cities all around the world,

  • from New York to London to Dhaka.

  • And according to NASA observations, Greenland has been steadily losing ice for the past 30 years.

  • If this trend continues, we will be on course for theworst-casescenario of sea level rise.

  • The best part of these studies is that they can help us understand what Earth's climate may be like in the future,

  • which can then help us make decisions about how to prepare and act.

  • Who would have thought that a Cold War military base would lead to an international collaboration to fight a common enemy: the climate crisis?

  • To learn more about the mysterious Camp Century, check out this Focal Point episode here.

  • Make sure to subscribe to Seeker and thanks for watching. I'll see you next time.

Over half a century ago, scientists at a secret Cold War military base in Greenland

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These Rediscovered Ice Cores Could Help Predict Earth's Future Climate

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    Summer posted on 2021/08/11
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