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Scientists stunned by fossils found deep beneath Greenland's ice sheet

The discovery could have huge implications for climate change studies.

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Greenland was not always covered in ice.

Joshua Brown/UVM

Looking through the back of your freezer can unearth all manner of goodies that you'd likely forgotten about, but probably nothing quite as surprising as a discovery made at the back of a freezer at the University of Copenhagen.

A 15-foot tube of ice and dirt from Greenland, recovered in 1966 by a US military team that'd drilled over a mile down into the ice, was analyzed for the first time in 2019 -- and there was much more than just sand and dirt in the samples.

In a study, published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences on Monday, the international team of researchers describe the discovery of "perfectly preserved" twigs and leaves locked within their extracted ice cores. The existence of these plants implies that there was once vegetation in that spot now buried by ice, which shows that a decent portion of Greenland must have been ice-free within the past million years.

Scientist Andrew Christ reported that the samples are like a time capsule of Greenland before the ice. "Ice sheets typically pulverize and destroy everything in their path," he said, "but what we discovered was delicate plant structures. They're fossils, but they look like they died yesterday." 

The implications of the discovery could be huge for studies on climate change, given that analysis of Greenland's ice sheet could help scientists predict how it will behave as temperatures rise and the ice melts as a result of human activity. It may also help them estimate how long the ice sheet will take before it melts completely, affecting sea levels worldwide.

In addition, the discovery suggests that Greenland could be more vulnerable to human-induced climate change than we first thought, given evidence that most of the ice sheet has melted away at least once before in history -- and that was without the aid of human greenhouse gases and emissions. 

Now that the levels are higher, the ice could melt faster and with more extreme results. Greenland's ice sheet holds enough water to raise global sea levels by 20 feet, which would have dire consequences for coastal populations as it melts.

Lead scientist Paul Bierman was emphatic about the need to address Greenland's ice problem immediately. "This is not a 20-generation problem," he said. "This is an urgent problem for the next 50 years."