Scientists have found evidence that millions of years ago, the Arctic – at least parts of it – was covered in a dense forest.
Researchers from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, found fossilized pollen of Douglas fir and hemlock trees in Russia's Lake El'gygytgyn, located close to the East Siberian Sea in Northeast Russia. The isolated lake is far from any city, and is about 400 miles west of the Bering Strait between Alaska and Russia. The research was published Thursday in the journal Science.
According to lead researcher Julie Brigham-Grette, the trees likely grew there between 2.2 and 3.6 million years ago, during an era known as the Pliocene. The Arctic was approximately 14.4 degrees warmer than it is now, with summer temperatures reaching the low 60s. At the time, carbon levels in the atmosphere were higher than they are now, but not by much, Brigham-Grette says.
"It was forested with exotic trees," she says. "We thought, maybe this could be a good place to study what the world could be like [in the future]. We could surpass [those carbon levels] this year easily."
Brigham-Grette says it will take many years before any trees could grow in the Arctic again, but her research proves that the Arctic wasn't always covered in ice. Some climate scientists have suggested the Arctic could be moving toward an iceless future. A recent study suggested that melting ice will even open new shipping routes through the region as early as 2050.