The record preserved in cores through the thickest part of the Greenland ice cap goes back only to a little more than 120 thousand years ago, unlike in Antarctica where data are available for 800 ka and potentially further back still. One possible reason for this difference is that a great deal more snow falls on Greenland so the ice builds up more quickly than in Antarctica. Because ice flows under pressure this might imply that older ice on Greenland long flowed to the margins and either melted or calved off as icebergs. So, although it is certain that the Antarctic ice cap has not melted away, at least in the last million years or so, we cannot tell if Greenlandic glaciers did so over the same period of time. Knowing whether or not Greenland might have shed its carapace of ice is important, because if ever does in future the meltwater will add about 7 metres to global sea level: a nightmare scenario for coastal cities, low-lying islands and insurance companies.
One means of judging when Greenland was last free of ice, or at least substantially so, is based on more than a ice few metres thick being opaque to cosmic ‘rays’. Minerals, such as quartz, in rocks bared at the surface to ultra-high energy, cosmogenic neutrons accumulate short-lived isotopes of beryllium and aluminium – 10Be and 26Al with half-lives of 1.4 and 0.7 Ma. Once rocks are buried beneath ice or sediment, the two isotopes decay away and it is possible to estimate the duration of burial from the proportions of the remaining isotopes. After about 5 Ma the cosmogenic isotopes will have decreased to amounts that cannot be measured. Conversely, if the ice had melted away at any time in the past 5 Ma and then returned it should be possible to estimate the timing and duration of exposure of the surface to cosmic ‘rays’. Two groups of researchers have applied cosmogenic-isotope analysis to Greenland. One group (Schaefer, J.G. et al. 2016. Greenland was nearly ice-free for extended periods during the Pleistocene. Nature, v. 540, p. 252-255) focused on bedrock, currently buried beneath 3 km of ice, that drilling for the ice core finally penetrated. The other systematically analysed the cosmogenic isotope content of mineral grains at different depths in North Atlantic seafloor sediment cores, largely supplied from East Greenland since 7.5 Ma ago (Bierman, P.R. et al. 2016. A persistent and dynamic East Greenland Ice Sheet over the past 7.5 million years Nature, v. 540, p. 256-260). As their titles suggest, the two studies had conflicting results.
The glacigenic sediment grains contained no more than 1 atom of 10Be per gram compared with the 5000 to 6000 in grains deposited and exposed to cosmic rays along the shores of Greenland since the end of the last ice age. These results challenge the possibility of any significant deglaciation and exposure of bedrock in the source of seafloor sediment since the Pliocene. The bedrock from the base of Greenland’s existing ice cap, however, contains up to 25 times more cosmogenic isotopes. The conclusion in that case is that there must have been a protracted, >280 ka, exposure of the rock surface in what is now the deepest ice cover at 1.1 Ma ago at most. Allowing for the likelihood of some persistent glacial cover in what would have been mountainous areas in an otherwise substantially deglaciated Greenland, the results are consistent with about 90% melting suggested by glaciological modelling.
Clearly, some head scratching is going to be needed to reconcile the two approaches. Ironically, the ocean-floor cores were cut directly offshore of the most likely places where patches of residual ice cap may have remained. Glaciers there would have transported rock debris that had remained masked from cosmic rays until shortly before calved icebergs or the glacial fronts melted and supplied sediment to the North Atlantic floor. If indeed the bulk of Greenland became ice free around a million years ago, under purely natural climatic fluctuations, the 2° C estimate for global warming by 2100 could well result in a 75% glacial melt and about 5-6 m rise in global sea level.