Antarctica turns greener as climate changes

Antarctic moss

Antarctic moss

Professor Sharon Robinson, a climate change biologist at the University of Wollongong said the study by the United Kingdom researchers reaffirmed that mosses were a sensitive proxy for climate change in Antarctica.

"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.

In addition to climate change, the extinction of animal species, plastic waste - there could be more of that than fish in the sea by 2050 - ash from fossil fuels and radioactive particles from nuclear bomb tests will all leave a permanent record in the planet's future rocks.

Scientists studying banks of moss in Antarctica have found that the quantity of moss, and the rate of plant growth, has shot up in the past 50 years, suggesting the continent may have a verdant future.

Professor Robinson said the increase in the growth rates of moss seen in the study is dramatic if compared to growth at the scale of trees.

He added that change had kicked in at different times depending on the location between 1950 and 1980. This new paper reports from three more sites, stretching from the very northern Elephant Island to Lazarev Bay.

Average annual temperatures on the peninsula - the panhandle that points toward South America - have gone up almost 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1950s, when researchers started keeping detailed weather records. They found that the rate the mosses were growing increased hugely around the middle of the 20th Century.

'If this continues, and with increasing amounts of ice free land from continued glacier retreat, the Antarctic Peninsula will be a much greener place in the future'.

"The benefits of our work and our sites that we've been able to study is that we can make conclusions about a wide area", Dr Amesbury said.

"We looked at the last 150 years of records to try and give a bit of longer term context to well-documented and recorded changes in the Antarctic Peninsula from the 1950s onwards", he said.

Those who doubt global warming is already happening should take note.

"The common perception of Antarctica is it's a very white and icy place and on the whole that's absolutely correct", Amesbury said.

Plant life on Antarctica is scarce, existing on only 0.3% of the continent, but moss, well preserved in chilly sediments, offers scientists a way of exploring how plants have responded to such changes.

"Antarctica is not going to become entirely green, but it will become more green than it now is", said Matt Amesbury, co-author of the research from the University of Exeter.

"Although there was variability within our data, the consistency of what we found across different sites was striking".

The researchers now plan to examine core records dating back over thousands of years to test how much climate change affected ecosystems before human activity started causing global warming.