Published: Fri, May 19, 2017
Sci-tech | By Carrie Guzman

Antarctica Greening Up as Climate Change Takes Hold

Antarctica Greening Up as Climate Change Takes Hold

Less than 1 percent of present-day Antarctica features plant life.

An global team of researchers say the trend is the result of the "greenhouse effect", which is expanding plant growth on the continent. The findings appear in Current Biology on May 18.

In 2013, researchers studying mosses and microbes growing at the southern end of the Antarctic Peninsula documented unprecedented ecological change over the last 50 years, driven by warming temperatures.

The increase in moss is also encouraged by other effects of climate change such as glacial retreat, which has created more ice-free land.

"What we're going to be doing next is trying to understand more about the relationships between the proxies that we measured in the mosses, how they've changed over longer time scales, before the advent of the human influence on climate", he said.

The scientists analysed data for the last 150 years, and found clear evidence of "changepoints" - points in time after which biological activity clearly increased - in the past 50 years.

"Temperature increases over roughly the past half century on the Antarctic Peninsula have had a dramatic effect on moss banks growing in the region, with rapid increases in growth rates and microbial activity", said Dan Charman, who led the research in Exeter.

"Although there was variability within our data, the consistency of what we found across different sites was striking", said Dan Charman, another author from Exeter.

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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.

The next step, the researchers say, is to study cores from the oldest moss banks in the region - believed to date back 5,000 to 6,000 years.

The Arctic is warming the fastest, but Antarctica is not far behind, with annual temperatures gaining nearly one degree Fahrenheit (half degree Celsius) each decade since the 1950s.

The Antarctic Peninsula is undergoing a widespread transformation after a half-century of warming, fueling a "greening" at the edges of the inhospitable continent at the bottom of the world, new research concludes. It occurred both at the tip of the peninsula and further inland where it is colder.

Scientists have found that the reason for the slow heating up of the air over Antarctica is large, the average height of the surface of the continent (2.5 thousand meters above sea level). Besides reflecting more solar radiation back to space, the continent's landscape also affects how heat is transported in the atmosphere from the equator.

Scientists are now considering whether to formally adopt 1950 as the start of a new geological epoch called the Anthropocene because of the astonishing global effects that modern humans are having on the Earth.

"Assuming a flat Antarctica allows for more transport of warm air from lower attitudes", he said.

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