UVM researchers explore glacial past for clues to climate change

Published: Jan. 25, 2019 at 2:04 PM EST
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New research from the University of Vermont is shedding light on the region's glacial history and providing insight into how climate change is impacting ice sheets today.

At ECHO in Burlington, visitors step back in time to learn about Vermont's geological past, including the fact that the region was once under a mile of ice.

"There are always guests that are shocked, like 'what? We were under ice?'" said ECHO's Cailee Smith.

Just up the hill at the University of Vermont, researchers are chipping deeper into that frigid history with an eye towards the future.

"We literally removed samples with a hammer and chisel from boulders," said Lee Corbett, a UVM research scientist.

Corbett says the UVM geology lab team used the samples from eroded bedrock and erratics -- boulders left behind from glaciers -- to backdate when the ice sheet left the Green Mountains. "Really what we're doing is we're studying the death of an ice sheet," he said.

They isolated the quartz from the rock -- then the beryllium -- and then sent that to a particle accelerator to count atoms of a particular form of the element to figure out how long the rock on Mount Mansfield has been exposed to the elements.

"The scale is amazing -- that we start with a very large boulder, you get to a very small rock sample, you get to a handful of quartz, and then you literally get to single atoms," Corbett said. And through that, they discovered the glacier's retreat happened too fast to measure. "The ice left Mount Mansfield incredibly quickly."

Reporter Cat Viglienzoni: When you say "quickly," in geology terms what are we talking about?

Lee Corbett: Probably within centuries, maybe within a thousand years, but in geological terms, it's very rapidly.

Their new research was recently published and shows the glacier left Vermont about 14,000 years ago. But why is that important now?

"We care because humans are changing the earth's climate in a way that is unprecedented than in the past," said UVM geology professor Paul Bierman. He says while we enjoy the lasting impacts of the glacial retreat in our skiing, hiking and other outdoor activities, learning what happened to our ice sheet might provide insight into what could happen as other ice sheets shrink today. "We need to know how ice sheets such as Antarctica and Greenland are going to behave, and one of our best analogs is looking back to the past when the last great ice sheets melted."

The next step for the research is to look at New England as a whole to assess the glacial impact on the entire region. And much of that research will be done at the UVM lab.