Tree stumps at the feet of Western Canadian glaciers are providing new insights into the accelerated rates at which the rivers of ice have been shrinking due to human-aided global warming.
Geologist Johannes Koch of The College of Wooster found the deceptively fresh and intact tree stumps beside the retreating glaciers of Garibaldi Provincial Park, about 40 miles (60 km) north of Vancouver, British Columbia. What he wanted to know was how long ago the glaciers made their first forays into a long-lost forest to kill the trees and bury them under ice.
To find out, Koch radiocarbon-dated wood from the stumps to see how long they have been in cold storage. The result was a surprising 7000 years.
"The stumps were in very good condition sometimes with bark preserved," said Koch, who conducted the work as part of his doctoral thesis at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Koch will present his results on Wednesday, 31 October 2007, at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Denver.
The pristine condition of the wood, he said, can best be explained by the stumps having spent all of the last seven millennia under tens to hundreds of meters of ice. All stumps were still rooted to their original soil and location.
"Thus they really indicate when the glaciers overrode them, and their kill date gives the age of the glacier advance," Koch explained. They also give us a span of time during which the glaciers have always been larger than they were 7000 years ago – until the recently warming climate released the stumps from their icy tombs.
Koch compared the kill dates of the trees in the southern and northern Coast Mountains of British Columbia and those in the mid- and southern Rocky Mountains in Canada to similar records from the Yukon Territory, the European Alps, New Zealand and South America. He also looked at the age of Oetzi, the prehistoric mummified alpine "Iceman" found at Niederjoch Glacier, and similarly well-preserved wood from glaciers and snowfields in Scandinavia.
The radiocarbon dates seem to be the same around the world, according to Koch. It's important to note that there have been many advances and retreats of these glaciers over the past 7000 years, but no retreats that have pushed them back so far upstream as to expose these trees.
The age of the tree stumps gives new emphasis to the well-documented "before" and "after" photographs of retreating glaciers during the 20th century.
"It seems like an unprecedented change in a short amount of time," Koch said. "From this work and many other studies looking at forcings of the climate system, one has to turn away from natural ones alone to explain this dramatic change of the past 150 years."
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