DNA researchers uncover secrets of Greenland’s ancient climate


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We have long known that Norsemen settled Greenland just over a millennium ago, where for the next several hundred years they survived primarily by fishing and hunting in a much warmer climate than Greenland has today.

They called their new home Greenland because this giant island in the North Atlantic was, in fact, green. The warmer temperatures in Medieval times even enabled a form of subsistence agriculture to take root at much higher latitudes than would be possible today, and generations of hardy Norsemen in Greenland assumed things would stay that way. Alas, they were forced to abandon Greenland in the late 15th century as a result of plummeting temperatures.

The Little Ice Age had come calling.

Today, Greenland’s over 833,000 square miles are home to slightly more than 56,000 people, who are heavily concentrated along the country’s southwestern coast. The northernmost tip of Greenland is an Arctic desert, where lichens and moss are about the only forms of life one will encounter. But it wasn’t always that way.

A Much Warmer World

In a study published Nov. 7 in Nature, researchers genetically mapped 2-million-year-old DNA from Arctic sediments. They discovered that today’s Arctic desert — where it’s so dry there isn’t enough moisture to create snow — was once home to over 100 plant genera, nine animal taxa, including the extinct elephant-like mastodon, and even marine life within the same region. All this was made possible by an ancient ecosystem that was 18 to 31 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than modern-day Greenland.

It took an international team of researchers 16 years to disentangle what is now the oldest DNA to be identified. As criminal investigators know, DNA doesn’t lie. “A team effort painstakingly matched every fragment with extensive libraries of DNA collected from present-day plants, animals, and organisms,” the Washington Post (Nov. 9) reported.

“Soon, a picture of the ancient forests, bays, flora, and fauna came into focus,” the Post continued. “Yet the results were also puzzling – many of the uncovered animals and plants didn’t seem to make ecological sense. Plants and animals that are typically found in the Arctic were in the same ecosystem as those found in the boreal forests farther south. One abundant plant genus was dryas, which is typically found in the Arctic. Yet the team also found poplars, deciduous trees usually found in boreal forests.”

“No one would have predicted this ecosystem in northern Greenland at this point in time,” said Eske Willerslev, a palaogeneticist at the University of Copenhagen, who led the study.

Additionally, the team of researchers found evidence of hares, rodents, geese, and lemmings – species that are almost completely absent from northernmost Greenland today. Pointing to the diverse community of species that were sharing a common area of northern Greenland 2 million years ago, Mathew Barnes, an ecologist at Texas Tech University, who did not participate in the research, told the Post in an email: “It’s a mishmash of species that ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ belong together based on our understanding of modern ecology.”

His comments show that Barnes understands that “our understanding of modern ecology” may have to undergo a reassessment. Things that we think are a given in the modern natural world were not so in ancient times. Species have a remarkable ability to adapt to their surrounding – far greater than much fashionable ecological dogma is willing to admit.

Furthermore, the warmer temperatures the researchers were able to confirm were quickly (in geological terms) followed by a succession of Ice Ages that came and went, greatly altering the face of the Earth. Today, we’re living in an interglacial period, which means we’re between the last Ice Age, which ended about 11,000 years ago, and the next one.

The next time you read or hear that we’re experiencing “unprecedented climate change,” have a good chuckle. These people don’t know what they’re talking about and probably never will.

  • Bonner Cohen, Ph. D.

    Bonner R. Cohen, Ph. D., is a senior policy analyst with CFACT, where he focuses on natural resources, energy, property rights, and geopolitical developments. Articles by Dr. Cohen have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investor’s Busines Daily, The New York Post, The Washington Examiner, The Washington Times, The Hill, The Epoch Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, The Miami Herald, and dozens of other newspapers around the country. He has been interviewed on Fox News, Fox Business Network, CNN, NBC News, NPR, BBC, BBC Worldwide Television, N24 (German-language news network), and scores of radio stations in the U.S. and Canada. He has testified before the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, the U.S. Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, the U.S. House Judiciary Committee, and the U.S. House Natural Resources Committee. Dr. Cohen has addressed conferences in the United States, United Kingdom, Germany, and Bangladesh. He has a B.A. from the University of Georgia and a Ph. D. – summa cum laude – from the University of Munich.

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