An interim report on the next Ice Age
For the first time a scientific task force is probing the mystery of the Arctic icecap: Is a new Ice Age coming or is the last one receding? This is Fred Bodsworth’s account of the detective story unfolding on Axel Heiberg Island
WE WERE EIGHTEEN HOURS’ flying time north of Montreal and now at last the humpy, jagged land mass of Axel Heiberg Island was lifting like a gigantic sea monster out of the ice-flecked Arctic sea ahead of us. 1 was flying north with a party of scientists and McGill University officials to visit the Jacobsen-McGill Arctic Research Expedition, which was working here on the rim of the Arctic Ocean’s permanent icepack five hundred miles from the North Pole.
It was eleven o’clock at night, but this was midAugust and the Arctic sun was still high and coppery in the northern sky, sharply silhouetting Axel Heiberg's tumbling, rollercoaster skyline. There arc broad regions of the lower Arctic as flat and barren as desert, but here in the High Arctic we were in rugged, mountainous terrain. And now as our twinengined C-46 came nearer, I could see the thin white line of Axel Heiberg's central icecap beginning to appear. The island is about the size of Switzerland, but much of it is permanently hidden because its mountainous centre is buried under a
dome of ice as big as Prince Edward Island. To study this icecap, one of the Canadian Arctic’s largest, is the principal purpose of the JacobsenMcGill expedition to Axel Heiberg. And it was the Arctic feature that I, as a fascinated and dilettante geologist, was most anxious to see.
Many of Canada’s Arctic islands have gigantic icecaps like this, pushing knurled and sinuous glaciers down their mountain valleys toward the sea. An hour before, we had passed within sight of the icecap on Devon Island. Now, approaching Axel Heiberg, we could see another icecap on Ellesmere Island, fuzzy and distant in the Arctic haze on our right.
These and the greatest of all northern icecaps, the one that covers Greenland, pose a tantalizing and fascinating question. Are they the shrinking remnants of the last Ice Age, which 15,000 years ago covered Canada and the United States under a devastating, mile-thick sheet of ice? Or are they a new Ice Age beginning, one that will again creep inexorably southward, burying cities, driving all life
before it as at least four past Ice Ages have done?
This question dominated my mind as our plane canne in over Axel Heiberg and then turned eastward toward Eureka weather station on neighboring Ellesmere, the nearest landing strip. When we landed at Eureka half an hour later a midnight sun was rising again in the northeast sky without having set. From here we were to be ferried, one passenger at a time, to the west coast of Axel Heiberg, a hundred miks away, in a small Piper Cub especially fitted with soft, fat balloon tires that permitted it to land on the mushy tundra beside the Jacobsen-McGill expedition’s base camp.
When my turn came I squeezed into the little plane behind its pilot, Arctic veteran Weldon Phipps, and squirmed down as comfortably as possible amid gasoline tins and sleeping bags. The Piper Cub lurched along Eureka's rubbery runway while Phipps skilfully avoided the frost boils oozing up from the 2.000 feet of rigid permafrost that underlies it, and then we bounced into the air. We turned west across Eureka Sound, passing over a
chain of icebergs strung out like a shattered necklace on the water below, each iceberg framed vividly in green where its edges dipped underwater. Ahead again now was Axel Heiberg, a land warped by mountains and fluted battlements of red sandstone. cloven by glaciers and twisting fiords, its central icecap resembling in the distance a rumpled bonnet of white lace that had been folded and wrinkled over a head too small to fill it.
This time in the jolting Piper Cub we were to pass at low altitude directly over the icecap. It rolled up toward us over the ragged horizon, an undulating desert of ice and snow fifty miles across and seven thousand feet above sea level. As we flew across its rim I could see higher peaks here and there protruding through the icecap, gaunt and wrinkled like walnuts sticking out of an enormous ice-cream custard — the only indication that a whole mountain range lay buried here beneath thousands of years of accumulating Arctic snows. And 1 wondered again: Was this the decaying remains of the last Ice Ago or an embryo of the next?
The icecap frays like a tattered canvas at its rim and becomes a radiating maze of glaciers flowing like white lava down mountain troughs toward the sea. We began a long, gradual descent down one of its ice-filled valleys. Ridges and craggy peaks rose above us now, crowding in on cither side, vividly banded in red and brown sandstones and grey shales. Many of them bear black caps of hard, resistant gabbro-diorite that shield the softer sandstones beneath from erosion, and preserve their steep, rugged form, producing scenery that some regard as more spectacular than the Rockies. The glacier directly below glared white in the sun, its sinuous pattern of crevasses and pressure ridges looking like ski trails in soft snow. Phipps gestured downward with his thumb and 1 could distinguish two white tents surrounded by meteorological instruments on the ice surface below, one of the outlying JacobsenMcGill research camps, our first indication that men were living here, plumbing this waste of rock and ice for the earth secrets it could yield.
The Piper Cub lurched
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The men drilling on Axel Heiberg sincerely hope that they won’t find oil
like a skittish pony as we left the end of the glacier where rising air currents from the white, heat-reflecting ice met the more stable air that lay over brown tundra beyond. A mile or two farther on we glided over the expedition’s base camp, two garage-sized buildings (a cookhouse and lab) and a cluster of tents. The Piper Cub’s cushioning balloon tires rumbled hollowly as they touched the first spongy hummocks of tundra, and then the soft earth clasped them and wc stopped in a short, bumpy landing. Phipps turned. “Like landing in a bowl of porridge,” he said.
1 was met by Dr. Fritz Müller, the expedition’s scientific leader. A lithe, athletic Swiss mountaineer who at thirty-four is one of the world’s foremost glaciologists, Müller had done scientific work in Greenland and Canada’s Mackenzie delta region, but in 1956 his love for mountains and glaciers took him back to Switzerland to join the 1956 Swiss expedition to Mount Everest. While other members of this expedition chose the more glamorous role of conquering Everest’s top. Müller remained at a lower level to study Everest’s great Khumbu Glacier. When the Everest expedition disbanded, Müller stayed behind alone for another nine months at an energy-sapping 17,000 feet to complete his Everest glaciological research. He returned to Zurich University in Switzerland and in 1959 he was brought to McGill to head the JacobsenMcGill expedition to Axel Heiberg.
The expedition was launched by Dr. George Jacobsen, a Montreal engineer and Arctic construction expert whose fanatic love for the North led him into a thriving and farflung Arctic building business. Jacobsen’s interest in permafrost and northern construction methods dates from his student days in Iceland. After the war, when government and military agencies began seeking builders for Arctic bases, weather stations and radar sites, he was the most highly qualified Arctic builder available and his hobby became a major business. His firm, the Tower Company Limited, is today Canada’s leading Arctic builder. But Jacobsen himself. an incurable Arctic romantic, has retained a passionate interest in northern exploration and research, and the Jacobsen-McGill Arctic Research Expedition to Axel Heiberg is its latest product. It is directed by a committee of McGill University scientists; Jacobsen, the main money-raiser, is its chairman.
Jacobsen first visited Axel Heiberg in 1953. In the summer of 1959 he led the advance party of the expedition, which surveyed the island and set up the base camp. Last May, twenty-four young scientists landed there; they left in September. They will return for at least two more summers.
The expedition ushers in a new era of Arctic exploration. For the first time a major Arctic research program is trying to ferret out pure scientific knowledge without military or economic application. In the past, all major Arctic research has had to be sponsored by government or military agencies because of the high cost of Arctic expeditions, and as a result the research has had to be channeled into usable fields such as the surveying of natural resources or the development of defense. The Jacobsen-McGill expedition is a major switch from this pattern. Its funds, about $100,000 a year, come from
McGill, the National Research Council, the Arctic Institute, the Mount Everest Foundation and several industries; they include an undisclosed sum from Jacobsen himself. There is no political or1 military dictation to confine the research. It wall produce no dramatic, immediate results — no new oilfields, no new mineral deposits. In fact, in one project — the drilling of a hole to study permafrost and measure heat flow from the earth's interior — they are praying that they won't strike oil, for this would nullify it all. The expedition will simply contribute, in the realm of pure and basic science, to a better understanding of the earth on which we live.
“Basic research has become the scientific stepchild of the modern world and it has been especially neglected in the Arctic,” Dr. Jacobsen said. "But science needs the opportunity to do this kind of research. It cannot move forward if it is forced to explore only the channels of science that can pay off in dollars and cents. These boys are the new Arctic explorers, the modern Stefanssons and Franklins. There are no new lands to be discovered in the Arctic. The only new frontiers are the new frontiers of knowledge that these boys are now exploring.”
Axel Heiberg was chosen as the research site because its icecap and glaciers provided an excellent opportunity for glaciological studies and because this second-northernmost Arctic island is Canada’s last major unknown frontier. Discovered in 1900, it was seen by only a score of men in the next fifty years before RCAF mapping planes began photographing its rugged topography in 1950. It is still one of the most inaccessible Canadian Arctic islands. Until 1947, when a weather station was established at Eureka, it could be reached only by an overwinter sled journey. Even today, with a landing strip and refueling base at Eureka, it can be reached only by helicopter or by light planes with undercarriages redesigned for landing on glaciers or unprepared tundra. It is estimated that fewer than fifty men have set foot upon
it to this day — and half óf them were last summer’s scientific party.
But Axel Heiberg in a few years will be one of the better-known regions of Canada's Arctic, for the Jacobsen-McGill researchers are working in all the basic earth sciences to fit together a scientific picture of the region. They are studying its climate, meteorology, its soils, permafrost and geological structure, and its plants and wild life. But the main study is the island’s glaciology.
Glaciers and the mountaintop icecaps that feed them are a fascinating storehouse of information about the earth’s past, for their compressed and layered ice can be thousands of years old. providing a record of past climates, snowfall and vegetation. These studies are of special interest to Canadian geologists, for all of Canada has been covered by ice sheets at least four times in the past million years. Canada’s surface topography, its zones of agricultural soil, its lakes and drainage systems are all products of gigantic gouging by past Ice Ages. To understand these Ice Ages and their effect on the land, scientists must study the glaciers and icecaps that survive today. From these modern studies have come theories as to how Ice Ages were caused, and clues to the inevitable question this subject poses: is the earth just coming out of the past Ice Age, or entering another?
Within an hour of my landing on Axel Heiberg, Jacobsen and Müller were escorting me across two miles of tundra and glacier to the ice research camp that Phipps had pointed out to me on the llight in. And Müller began filling me in on some of the fundamentals of icecap and glacier lore. Icecaps occur wherever more snow falls in winter than can be melted the following summer, and a surplus piles up year after year. Pressure and the refreezing of summer meltwater turn the accumulating snow into ice. As. thickness and pressure build up, the lower strata of ice become plastic and are squeezed outward at the bottom, producing the rivers of ice down mountain valleys that are called glaciers. In the
warmer climate of lower altitudes, glaciers reach a point where they melt back in summer at the rate at which they are fed from the icecap above. They are then in balance and the glacier’s frontal tongue changes its position only in response to long-term changes in climate, often shifting only a few feet backward or forward in centuries.
How do you determine a glacier's age? How do you measure its movement when the movement is so slow that a man could sit and watch it for a lifetime and detect no change? To answer these questions.
Müller and his team are conducting investigations some of which arc so bizarre and ingenious they would do credit to the imagination of a science-fiction writer.
One technique being used on Axel Heiberg for measuring the rate at which glaciers retreat was first conceived by a young Austrian botany student when he was crawling through an Innsbruck cemetery with a magnifying glass studying the growth of lichens on old tombstones. Lichens are very small, scaly plants that begin growing on bare rock as soon as the rock is exposed to sunlight. They grow
extremely slowly, spreading out in a thin, crusty mat, often taking centuries to grow a few inches. The student was Roland Bcschel, who came to Canada in 1955. Now. with a PhD for his work in lichenology, he is on the faculty of Queen’s University at Kingston. Beschel found that each species of lichen grows at a standard rate, depending on the climate, and the rate can be worked out from tombstones, whose dates indicate when the growth began. Subsequent studies in old Greenland cemeteries have enabled him to adjust his “lichen clock" for
Arctic species of lichen. He is now studying the lichens on rocks in front of Axel Heiberg glaciers, in this way determining how long it has been since the ice moved back, exposing the rocks and allowing the lichen growth to begin.
Before we examine Beschel’s findings, let’s look at some of the other techniques being used for reading the life stories of Axel Heiberg's glaciers.
One involved study is a sort of glacier credit and debit bookkeeping. The amount of new ice being added to the upper icecap each winter and the amount lost through melting and evaporation from the glacier tongues each summer are carefully calculated and a glacier balance sheet compiled to indicate whether the icecap and its glaciers en masse are gaining or losing. It will take several years to produce comprehensive results from this study.
Then too icecaps and glaciers show annual layers, much like the growth rings of trees. The layers are produced by the thawing and refreezing of each year’s snowfall and they are accentuated by the dust and sand that blow onto the ice each summer. One of the major Jacobsen-McGill projects is the digging of pits deep into the ice to study these annual layers. It is slow, hard work. One pit last sum-
mer was put down twenty-five feet to the 1911 level, but during the next two summers the glaciologists hope to get down a hundred feet, reaching ice a couple of centuries old. These pits will show whether ice accumulation is increasing or decreasing.
Müller expects to find that the layering will become indistinct at depth because of the pressure of ice above, but he will still be able to determine the age of ice by measuring the loss of radioactivity from radioactive oxygen and carbon isotopes that the ice will contain. This radioactive decay progresses at a known measurable rate that tells how long it has been since the isotopes were free elements in the atmosphere, thus indicating when the ice was formed.
An intriguing sidelight to this study will be an analysis of Arctic ice for traces of sulphur and carbon from the factory chimneys of the earth’s industrial regions. The atmosphere of the earth's north temperate zone became laden with sulphur and carbon when the industrial revolution began in Europe and America in the nineteenth century. If this industrial pollution is present in Arctic air it will be picked up by falling snow and be present in glacier ice.
“We shall start looking for sulphur and carbon at the 1X70 ice stratum, where it begins appearing in European glaciers,” Mfiller explained. "If it isn't there, we -.hall begin seeking it at higher levels."
One Greenland study of this nature found no traces of sulphur and carbon, suggesting that industrial wastes that began entering southern air as smoke ninety years ago have not yet reached the Arctic.
But the accuracy of this study has been questioned. Meteorologists responsible for weather forecasting are anxious to know the extent and rate at which the earth’s different air masses mix. The answer may be found deep down in the crushing ice of Axel Heiberg’s glaciers.
The Axel Heiberg research has been in progress only one summer, and it will continue for at least two summers more. What have they learned up to this stage? Can they say yet whether the earth is emerging from a dying Ice Age or on the threshold of a new one?
Glaciers act like gigantic bulldozers, pushing in front of them great mounds of rock and earth that the geologists call moraines. The moraine farthest in front of a glacier marks its farthest advance. A study of the moraines associated with Axel Heiberg’s largest glacier — Iceberg Glacier — indicates that its front has moved back about three miles. How long has this retreat required? One of Roland Beschel’s first lichen hunts was on rocks three miles in front of the Iceberg Glacier. One slow-growing species of lichen he found there, a tiny yellow and black one named Rhizocarpon, had produced rosettes of growth never more than two inches across. Another, an attractive silver-grey one named Lecidea, a fastergrowing species, had produced growths five inches across. Beschel, applying the lichen growth computations he had made in Austria and Greenland, determined that these particular lichens had begun their slow, creeping growth about the year 1600. This, then, was the date at which Iceberg Glacier began moving back, exposing the rocks in front of it. It has taken three and a half centuries to retreat three miles.
But for White Glacier, a medium-sized one near the Jacobsen-McGill base camp. Beschel’s lichen clock had a very different story. Here he found 2,000-year-old lichens just a few dozen yards in front of it, indicating its front has moved little in twenty centuries.
These and preliminary investigations of other glaciers have already shown that there is no uniform retreat in progress for all Axel Heiberg glaciers. Many of them are retreating, but many like White are stationary, and a few are advancing. But this is not the whole story, for studies of advance or retreat refer only to the area covered by ice. An icecap or glacier can be stationary or even increasing its area, yet be reducing in over-all bulk because it is getting thinner. And there is considerable evidence that this is happening on Axel Heiberg.
Ice soundings on White Glacier were begun last summer using seismic methods
— the letting off of a dynamite blast on the ice surface and timing the return of the shock-wave echo from the rock beneath the ice. The readings the researchers obtained indicate this glacier near its tongue is only about a hundred feet thick
— much thinner than they expected.
“We feel that the icecap up on the top
is also much thinner than we first believed, although we have no seismic readings yet to confirm this,” Dr. Mfiller said. “The peaks and the bottom topography are showing through the icecap more than our first examinations led us to believe.”
They were surprised to discover that the surface of White Glacier melts down about ten feet each summer and they doubt if the annual flow from the icecap above is sufficient to make up entirely this annual summer loss. This rapid melting of the surface created a novel problem in the maintenance of research camps on the glacier. Wherever a tent was pitched, the ice beneath it was shielded from the sun and ceased melting. But surrounding ice continued to melt and the effect after
a few weeks was to leave the tent standing on a pedestal of ice from which it had to be moved periodically or a ladder used to climb into it.
Although the picture isn't uniform for all the island’s glaciers, Axel Heiberg’s ice does seem to be waning. The cause can only be a warming of the Arctic’s climate which may have begun, according to Beschel's lichens, around 1600 in Axel Heiberg’s latitude. Scientists have been aware for some years that the lower Arctic is warming slowly, but there has been no previous research in the High Arctic
to indicate whether the same thing is happening there. If subsequent Jacobsen-McGill research proves definitely that the High Arctic is warming too, this will have a close and direct link with the story of past Ice Ages and possible future ones: a widely accepted theory today is that Ice Ages are caused not by a cooling climate but by a warming of the Arctic, primarily a warming of the Arctic Ocean itself.
The Ice Ages that have four times turned Canada and the northern U. S. into one vast glacier were simply icecaps like the Axel Heiberg one, but on a conti-
nental scale. Contrary to popular belief, the ice sheets did not push out from a centre at the North Pole; their centre was well south of the Arctic in the Labrador and Hudson Bay region. Here, across thousands of square miles, there have been periods when more snow fell each winter than could melt before the next winter. It piled up, compressed into ice, and after thousands of years the great weight of its centre would begin pushing out its edges in all directions.
It is difficult to work out a precise Ice Age chronology, but the last ice sheet
probably began pushing outward from its Hudson Bay centre about 100,000 years ago. For thousands of years it crept onward. its front probably moving no more than a hundred feet a year. It covered the prairies and Great Lakes region, pushed on to Nebraska, Illinois and southern Ohio. Two miles thick at its centre, it probably thinned to about a mile at its front. Rocks frozen into its bottom made it a gigantic sheet of sandpaper that rasped off hills and mountains and gouged out new lake basins wherever it found regions of softer bedrock. All life lied southward before it.
And then, about 15,000 years ago. something happened to cut off the heavy snowfall around Hudson Bay. Its source removed, the great ice sheet began shrinking back. According to current dating methods, the ice sheet didn't uncover the Great Lakes region until just 5,000 to 8,000 years ago, which is recent indeed as geologists measure time.
What had happened? There have been various Ice Age explanations, but a current one gaining wide acceptance regards the Arctic Ocean and its floating icepack as the trigger that governs the coming and going of Ice Ages. The theory holds that the Arctic Ocean hasn't always been covered with ice as it is today. As the ice sheets of each Ice Age melt, ocean levels rise, permitting more and more warm Atlantic water to spill over shallow ocean-bottom sills of rock between Greenland and Norway, which largely separate the Arctic and Atlantic Oceans during eras of low water. This intrusion of Atlantic water slowly warms Arcticwaters, the North Pole icepack melts and the Arctic Ocean becomes an open-water sea. Air masses moving southward from the North Pole can then absorb much more moisture than they can when the Arctic Ocean is capped with ice. This moisture is dumped in the form of extremely heavy snowfall on the mainland of northern Canada, and a new Ice Age begins.
More and more of the earth's water then becomes locked up in the continental ice sheets and ocean levels drop. The amount of warm Atlantic water entering the Arctic is reduced, the Arctic Ocean cools and a new Arctic icepack forms. When this occurs, the supply of moisture feeding snow to northern Canada is suddenly cut off and the Ice Age ends.
Where arc we now in this cycle?
The warming of the Arctic, particularly High Arctic regions like Axel Heiberg adjacent to the Arctic Ocean, may mean that the “hot-water tap" is turning on again, and more warm Atlantic water is passing over the Grecnland-Norway sills into the Arctic Ocean. At present the Arctic Ocean is covered with six to ten feet of permanent ice •— the thin, frigid shield that protects us from another glacial era — but if the warming trend persists this will eventually go, great snow clouds will again pour down over Labrador and Hudson Bay. and another Ice Age will begin.
But the work of the Jacobsen-McGill expedition on Axel Heiberg shows that it is ail happening with prodigious slowness and it will be thousands of years yet before another continental ice sheet begins to threaten Canadian real-estate values.
Scientists are convinced, however, that some day the implacable tide of ice will come again. For Ice Ages, it is now generally agreed, are a normal and recurring feature of our not-too-stable earth, and the ending of one Ice Age automatically sets in motion the conditions that trigger the next.
So, is Axel Heiberg's wasting icecap an old Ice Age dying or a new one beginning? Apparently it is both. ★