Vegetation Beneath the Ice

Under cover of violence
we pulled you from your frozen past,
geological collateral lying dormant
in our hurried transits.
Patiently you lay there,
whispering at night
with verdant notes that led us
to your icy crypt.
Unblinded by your brilliance
we unveiled jaded messages
that sparkled dangerously
across translucent veins.
Memories of foliage
placed purposefully
to conceal
what had been lost.
We stumble
from your frigid burrow,
our foot on the gas
driving history to repeat.

A section of the Greenland Ice Sheet (Image Credit: NASA Earth Observatory).

This poem is inspired by recent research, which has discovered plants buried deep beneath the ground, indicating that Greenland was once ice-free.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second largest mass of ice on Earth, holding enough water to raise global sea levels by around 7 m if it were to melt entirely. Even if warming in the coming decades is kept to low levels, melting from the Greenland Ice Sheet is expected to be substantial. Understanding how the Greenland Ice Sheet behaved in the past is therefore essential for understanding how it will respond to climate change in the near future. However, the extent of the Greenland Ice Sheet and the kinds of ecosystems that existed there before the last interglacial warm period (the warmer period of time between ice ages; the last of which ended around 120,000 years ago) have remained poorly understood. This new study uses samples from a long-lost ice core to suggests that the Greenland Ice Sheet actually completely melted and re-formed at least once during the past million years.

The core was originally extracted in 1966 from Camp Century, a polar Cold War military base that masqueraded as a science station to provide cover for ‘Project Iceworm’, a top-secret US Army mission to build a network of mobile nuclear missile launch sites beneath the Greenland Ice Sheet. The mission eventually failed, but several important pieces of research were conducted during this time, including the drilling of a 1400m-deep ice core. The core was kept in an army freezer before being moved to the University of Buffalo in the 1970s, then to the University of Copenhagen in the 1990s, where it was accidentally rediscovered in 2017 by the researchers in this study. When they probed the core (using a series of advanced analytical techniques which were unavailable when the ice core was originally taken) the researchers found ancient twigs and leaves, suggesting that an ice-free vegetated landscape (perhaps a boreal forest) stood where the mile-deep ice sheet stands today. Their results show that most, or all, of Greenland must have been ice-free within the last million years, perhaps even as recently as the last few hundred-thousand years, thereby providing strong evidence that the Greenland Ice Sheet is more fragile and sensitive to climate change than previously understood. This raises the distinct possibility of human-caused climate change causing it to melt entirely, bringing with it catastrophic sea level rise at a truly global scale.

6 thoughts on “Vegetation Beneath the Ice”

  1. A short compelling article. The poem, I find to be auditorily music to the ear. The depth of the poem is like a meditation. Thank you Mr. Illingworth.


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