Cold War Lessons From Greenland’s Ice

Image: Peter Prokosch/ GRID-Arendal

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

During the Cold War, the U.S. had grand plans to hide nuclear missiles beneath Greenland’s ice. While that project didn’t pan out, as part of the work, researchers extracted a massive mile-long ice core and 12 feet of frozen soil. That soil was analyzed decades later, and the leaves, twigs, and mosses found in the sample reveal that Greenland was ice-free less than a million years ago (a relative blip in geological time). This means that, as the Washington Post reported, that the biggest reservoir of ice in the Northern Hemisphere can collapse due to relatively small increases in temperature over a long period of time. 

Why this Matters: Greenland is losing its ice at record rates, leading to about 14 mm of sea level rise over the past 50 years. Without changes to current global emissions, the ice sheet could hit a tipping point where there’s more melt than accumulation before 2050. It could lose as much as 35,900 billion tons of ice by 2100, causing three feet of sea level rise. A totally melted ice sheet would raise sea levels by 20 feet

We don’t want to see what that looks like,” Andrew Christ, one of the lead researchers told the Washington Post. “It underscores the urgency of needing to change the way things are going right now.”

Full Circle Study: The soil sample from the U.S. military’s top-secret “Project Iceworm” came from the military trying to disguise the true nature of their missile-burying operation. That project didn’t come to fruition, but the research carried out to protect it turns out to be much more valuable. 

As Christ and his advisor and co-author Paul Bierman wrote in The Conversation, “An Arctic military base built in response to the existential threat of nuclear war inadvertently led us to discover another threat from ice cores – the threat of sea level rise from human-caused climate change. Now, its legacy is helping scientists understand how the Earth responds to a changing climate.”

Melting Will Redraw Coastlines: About 40% of people on earth live on or near the coast, and climate displacement is already happening from the sea level rise and more intense storms we’re experiencing today. Scientists say that every centimeter in global sea level rise exposes another 6 million people to coastal flooding. Looking at the Greenland ice sheet alone — the only permanent ice sheet outside of Antarctica — if current emissions continue, 100 million people will experience flooding every year by the end of the century.  

 

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