Global warming could awaken the Arctic's ancient forests

We're rolling back millions of years of change in the Arctic, and soon enough the area will be able to support the same kind of life found in the region over 2.5 million years ago. That's the message from today's presentation by Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier of the University of Montreal's Department of Geography, at the Canadian Paleontology Conference in Toronto.

Within just 80 years, he argued, Arctic areas may be rekindled with forests of willows, pines, and spruce. But at the same time, as the ancient biomass becomes exposed and starts to thaw, the ensuing methane release will only exacerbate the effects of global warming.

An ancient forest revealed

Global warming could awaken the Arctic's ancient forests

Working at the Nunavut island of Bylot, Guertin-Pasquier discovered the remains of a mummified forest that existed between 2.6 million and 3 million years ago. Such research has only been made possible in the last several years, on account of the thawing of the permafrost. And in fact, the researchers are finding exquisite samples of wood that were preserved in peat and frozen earth. They even found traces of pollen in the sediment that are typical of climates around 0°C (32°F). The current average temperature at Bylot is around -15°C (5°F) — but that's changing fast.

What's particularly fascinating about this discovery is not so much that a forest existed on that spot millions of years ago, but that it was able to endure the extreme lack of sunlight during the prolonged winters. To that end, Guertin-Pasquier and his team are hoping to get a closer look at other plant remains and get a better sense of what the local flora was like at the time.

Nobody expects the pollen or any other remains in the area to be capable of re-sprouting. Instead, the forests from the extreme North could start to encroach into these once again fertile regions. The main question stumping scientists right now is predicting the composition of these forests — and Guertin-Pasquier's research is offering an important clue.

The methane problem

Global warming could awaken the Arctic's ancient forests

The ancient Bylot forest is one of many that are currently emerging from a prolonged hibernation. As the North American ice caps recede, so too does the permafrost — thus exposing the wood and other biomass to the elements. As a result, this will all now start to rot, resulting in a tremendous release of methane into the atmosphere, an effect that will boost global warming. The same thing is happening in the Antarctic.

And yes, the ice sheet is melting quickly. Recent data gathered by satellite and planes flying over the Arctic, as well as submarines diving under it, indicate that the total volume of ice has diminished by almost half since 2004 — much quicker than experts had anticipated.

This realization has forced scientists to update their models, who are now predicting a seasonal ice-free Arctic within the next decade or two. And disturbingly, the warmer water will alter ocean currents, something that's likely to impact on local weather — among other things.

Sources: Nunatsiaq Online, oncampus.osu.edu, CBC.

Images: Alexandre Guertin-Pasquier, CBC.