An ancient forest has thawed from under a melting glacier in Alaska and is now exposed to the world for the first time in more than 1,000 years.
Stumps and logs have been popping out from under southern Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier — a 36.8-square-mile (95.3 square kilometers) river of ice flowing into a lake near Juneau — for nearly the past 50 years. However, just within the past year or so, researchers based at the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau have noticed considerably more trees popping up, many in their original upright position and some still bearing roots and even a bit of bark, the Juneau Empire first reported last week.
"There are a lot of them, and being in a growth position is exciting because we can see the outermost part of the tree and count back to see how old the tree was," Cathy Connor, a geology professor at the University of Alaska Southeast who was involved in the investigation, told LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet. "Mostly, people find chunks of wood helter-skelter, but to see these intact upright is kind of cool."
The team has tentatively identified the trees as either spruce or hemlock, based on the diameter of the trunks and because these are the types of trees growing in the region today, Connor said, but the researchers still need to further assess the samples to verify the tree type.
A protective tomb of gravel likely encased the trees more than 1,000 years ago, when the glacier was advancing, Connor said, basing the date on radiocarbon ages of the newly revealed wood. As glaciers advance, Connor explained, they often emit summer meltwater streams that spew aprons of gravel beyond the glacier’s edge.
Susitna Glacier, Alaska by NASA Goddard Photo and Video
NASA image acquired August 27, 2009
Content below by NASA Goddard Photo and Video’s Flickr
“Like rivers of liquid water, glaciers flow downhill, with tributaries joining to form larger rivers. But where water rushes, ice crawls. As a result, glaciers gather dust and dirt, and bear long-lasting evidence of past movements.”
“Alaska’s Susitna Glacier revealed some of its long, grinding journey when the Advanced Spaceborne Thermal Emission and Reflection Radiometer (ASTER) on NASA’s Terra satellite passed overhead on August 27, 2009. This satellite image combines infrared, red, and green wavelengths to form a false-color image. Vegetation is red and the glacier’s surface is marbled with dirt-free blue ice and dirt-coated brown ice. Infusions of relatively clean ice push in from tributaries in the north. The glacier surface appears especially complex near the center of the image, where a tributary has pushed the ice in the main glacier slightly southward.”
“A photograph taken by researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey (archived by the National Snow and Ice Data Center) shows an equally complicated Susitna Glacier in 1970, with dirt-free and dirt-encrusted surfaces forming stripes, curves, and U-turns.”
“Susitna flows over a seismically active area. In fact, a 7.9-magnitude quake struck the region in November 2002, along a previously unknown fault. Geologists surmised that earthquakes had created the steep cliffs and slopes in the glacier surface, but in fact most of the jumble is the result of surges in tributary glaciers.”
“Glacier surges—typically short-lived events where a glacier moves many times its normal rate—can occur when melt water accumulates at the base and lubricates the flow. This water may be supplied by meltwater lakes that accumulate on top of the glacier; some are visible in the lower left corner of this image. The underlying bedrock can also contribute to glacier surges, with soft, easily deformed rock leading to more frequent surges.”
NASA Earth Observatory image created by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon, using data provided courtesy of NASA/GSFC/METI/ERSDAC/JAROS, and U.S./Japan ASTER Science Team. Caption by Michon Scott.
Instrument: Terra - ASTER
Credit: NASA Earth Observatory