October 17th, 2013 by

By Marcelene Sutter

Hidden for centuries underneath a 5-foot-high layer of gravel and the 37-square-mile glacier that sits on top of it, a preserved forest is beginning to see the light of day again in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier region.

Hidden for centuries underneath a 5-foot-high layer of gravel and the 37-square-mile glacier that sits on top of it, a preserved forest is beginning to see the light of day again in Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier region. Credit: pdx2535/Flickr

The melting of the Mendenhall Glacier in Alaska is allowing a 1,000-year-old forest to see the light of day again — and raising concerns for residents. For the last 50 years, hints of the ancient forest have poked through the receding ice, however, scientists from the University of Alaska Southeast have noted more and more visible stumps in recent months. The gravel layer found covering these trees was vital to the forest’s preservation because of the protection it afforded the stumps from the surrounding layers of ice.

Mendenhall Glacier.

Mendenhall Glacier. Credit: Andrei Taranchenko

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of the reemergence of this forest is that upright trees were found at the site. Dr. Cathy Connor, a professor at the University of Alaska Southeast, told LiveScience’s OurAmazingPlanet that the discovery of these trees “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.” Dr. Connor adds that finding these upright trees is rare; most are dislodged from their roots, making the type and age of the tree harder to definitively discern. Analysis of contemporary vegetation in the region, together with data on the size and shape of the tree trunks, suggests that the recently uncovered trees are either spruce or hemlock.

Despite the excitement that this discovery creates, the rapidly receding glacier cover that made it possible raises serious concerns, especially among local residents who worry about dwindling sources of fresh drinking water and the negative impacts of rising sea levels. At American Forests, we recognize the varied challenges presented by climate change, and work to combat them by ensuring the protection of our forests. Protecting and restoring forests to increase carbon storage potential will help mitigate the effects of global climate change.

Help us protect and restore forests.