Antarctica Turning Green Because of Climate Change

Antarctica's Green Island moss bank with icebergs in the background. |         Matt Amesbury

Climate change is turning the white, frozen tundra of Antarctica a bit greener.

"Atmospheric CO2 levels have already risen to a level which the planet has not seen since the Pliocene, i.e. more than three million years old when Antarctic ice sheets were smaller and sea level was higher", - said the specialist in study of the ice Rob Deconto from the University of MA.

"If greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, Antarctica will head even further back in geologic time...perhaps the peninsula will even become forested again someday, like it was during the greenhouse climates of the Cretaceous and Eocene, when the continent was ice free", DeConto continued by email.

Plant life only exists on about 0.3 per cent of Antarctica, but the findings provide one way of measuring the extent and effects of warming on the continent.

"Temperature increases over roughly the past half century on the Antarctic Peninsula have had a dramatic effect on moss banks growing in the region", said co-author Matt Amesbury, of the University of Exeter.

The study says the results suggest Antarctica's ecosystems will "alter rapidly under future warming, leading to major changes in the biology and landscape of this iconic region". "These same scientists had already studied mosses in 2013 but on a single site in the south of the peninsula, where they had seen an accelerated growth of this vegetation as a result of the rise in temperature".




These samples were taken at three distant sites totaling approximately 640 km in the Antarctic Peninsula on the Elephant, Ardley and Green islands, where the layers of foam are the thickest and oldest. And the banks of moss that cover portions of the peninsula point to "a very widespread biological response" to climate change, said Matt Amesbury, a paleoclimatologist at Britain's University of Exeter.

The researchers found that two species of moss that used to grow less than a millimetre per year now grow over three millimetres per year on average.

The changes in the Antarctic also parallel the greening occurring in the Arctic, according to the study.

The changes that were catalogued in the layers showed they were out of the normal range of the previous 2,000 years shown in ice core records, they write. That could bring an ecosystem shift to Antarctica that is more in line with what researchers have found in the Arctic. Their goal is to explore the impact of climate change on terrestrial ecosystems before humans began heating things up.

The changes are likely to continue.

The study, published Thursday in the journal Current Biology, looked back over the past 150 years, concluding that biological activity had greatly accelerated, particularly since the middle of the 20th century.

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