Antarctic turning green as global warming triggers moss explosion

Posted May 20, 2017

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.

"Between 1950 and 2000 in the Antarctic Peninsula, temperatures increased by half a degree per decade on average", said Dr Amesbury, of Exeter University. "The Antarctic Peninsula is often thought of as a very remote and possibly even untouched region, but this clearly shows that the effects of climate change are felt here".

Antarctica isn't known for plants - in fact, it is mostly a barren landscape of ice and more ice.

The Antarctic Peninsula is not only getting warmer, it's getting dramatically greener with a sharp increase in plant growth over the last 50 years.

A group of scientists analyzed the historical data of the last 150 years and had identified specific points of time when the biological activity got increased.

" The sensitivity of foam growth to the rise in temperature in the past suggests that adjustment of ecosystems will occur rapidly with the current global warming, which will result in upheavals in the biology and landscape of this ecosystem".

"The results of that analysis lead us to believe there will be a future "greening" of the Antarctic and a further increase in moss growth rates". The researchers found two types of moss that grow to three millimeters per year, although previously they were only growing a millimeter a year.

Those sites include three Antarctic islands - Elephant Island, Ardley Island, and Green Island - where the deepest and oldest moss banks grow. "The reason we think that this is a response driven by climate change is because of the very wide-scale impact we see across the whole of the Antarctic Peninsula". Amesbury noted that the consistency of changes in the moss samples taken from different parts of the Peninsula was particularly striking.

"If the temperatures are below 0C, it doesn't matter if they change by 1 or 2 degrees, because all the water is still locked away as ice", she says.

There's more to come, the researchers say.

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. In the Arctic, there's now so much plant growth that some scientists are hoping it will at least partially offset the loss of carbon from thawing permafrost beneath those plants.

The changes are likely to continue.

Researchers said their data indicate that plants and soils will change substantially even with only modest further warming.