Deep ice cores show past Greenland warm period may be ‘road map’ for continued warming of planet

January 23, 2013 •

A new study by an international team of scientists analyzing ice cores from the Greenland ice sheet going back in time more than 100,000 years indicates the last interglacial period may be a good analog for where the planet is headed in terms of increasing greenhouse gases and rising temperatures.

The new results from the NEEM deep ice core drilling project led by the University of Copenhagen and involving the University of Colorado Boulder show that between 130,000 and 115,000 years ago during the Eemian interglacial period, the climate in north Greenland rose to about 14 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than today. Despite the strong warming signal during the Eemian -- a period when the seas were roughly 15 to 25 feet higher than today -- the surface of the north Greenland ice sheet near the NEEM facility was only a few hundred yards lower than it is today, an indication to scientists it contributed less than half of the total sea rise at the time.

The NEEM project involves 300 scientists and students from 14 countries and is led by Professor Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, director of the University of Copenhagen’s Centre of Ice and Climate.  CU-Boulder geological sciences professor and ice core expert Jim White is the lead U.S. investigator on the project.  The National Science Foundation’s Division of Polar Programs funded the U.S. portion of the effort.

The new Nature findings showed that about 128,000 years ago, the surface elevation of ice near the NEEM site was more than 650 feet higher than present but the ice was starting to thin by about 2 inches per year.  Between about 122,000 and 115,000 years ago, Greenland’s surface elevation remained stable at roughly 425 feet below the present level.  Calculations indicate Greenland’s ice sheet volume was reduced by no more than 25 percent between 128,000 years ago and 122,000 years ago, said White.

A paper on the subject was published in the Jan. 24 issue of Nature.

“When we calculated how much ice melt from Greenland was contributing to global sea rise in the Eemian, we knew a large part of the sea rise back then must have come from Antarctica,” said White, director of CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research. “A lot of us had been leaning in that direction for some time, but we now have evidence that confirms that the West Antarctic ice sheet was a dynamic and crucial player in global sea rise during the last interglacial period.”

Dahl-Jensen said the loss of ice mass on the Greenland ice sheet in the early part of the Eemian was likely similar to changes seen there by climate scientists in the past 10 years. Other studies have shown the temperatures above Greenland have been rising five times faster than the average global temperatures in recent years, and that Greenland has been losing more than 200 million tons of ice annually since 2003. The Greenland ice loss study was led by former CU-Boulder scientist Isabella Velicogna, who is currently a faculty member at the University of California, Irvine.

The intense melt in the vicinity of NEEM during the warm Eemian period was seen in the ice cores as layers of re-frozen meltwater.  Such melt events during the last glacial period were rare by comparison, showing that the surface temperatures at the NEEM site were in a cold, nearly constant state back then. But on July 12, 2012, satellite images from NASA indicated 97 percent of Greenland’s ice sheet surface had thawed as a result of warming temperatures.

“We were quite shocked by the warm surface temperatures observed at the NEEM ice camp in July 2012,” said Dahl-Jensen. “It was raining at the top of the Greenland ice sheet, and just as during the Eemian period, meltwater formed subsurface ice layers. While this was an extreme event, the present warming over Greenland makes surface melt more likely, and the predicted warming over Greenland in the next 50-100 years will very likely be so strong that we will potentially have Eemian-like climate conditions.”

Read the full press release here.