The glaciers in the Ötztal Alps in Austria are currently melting and could be lost within two decades. However, this may not be the first time people have experienced this type of change. A new analysis shows that glaciers formed in this region shortly before or perhaps even during the lifetime of Ötzi the Iceman, a mummified body found just 12 kilometers away in 1991.
Pascal Bohleber from the Austrian Academy of Sciences in Vienna and his colleagues drilled 11 meters into the Weißseespitze glacier to the bedrock at an altitude of 3,500 meters and collected two ice cores. They then used radiocarbon dating to analyze microscopic pieces of organic material extracted from the ice cores and found the glacier to be 5,200 to 6,600 years old. Ötzi is believed to have lived between 5,100 and 5,300 years ago, and his body was found preserved in ice.
The age of the glacier means that it formed during what is known as the Middle Holocene Warm Period, when the Earth’s climate was warmer than it is today. It’s also dome-shaped, which is rare in the Alps according to Bohleber and means that the ice has moved very little over time, which means we can use it to study the climate in which it formed.
“More information about the warm period in the mid-Holocene, when the glaciers were smaller than they are today, is urgently needed so that we can better predict how the glaciers will react to the expected future climate in the next 50 years,” says Bethan Davies of Royal Holloway, University of London.
Comparing ice cores from different locations says a lot about the past climate in this region, says Bohleber, but that becomes more difficult as the glaciers thaw. Meltwater makes it difficult to drill for ice cores and causes the glaciers to slide downhill and the old ice exposed to modern contaminants.
“That can erase these climate archives before the glacier itself has disappeared. We just discovered this website and demonstrated its worth. I think we won’t have much time to get more of the ice before this record is gone forever, ”says Bohleber.
“This area has been ice-free in the past and if it becomes ice-free in the future, it will not be the first time. But the speed at which the glacier is melting is unprecedented, ”says Davies.
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