July 27, 2017

Antarctica to be 'much greener place' due to climate change, scientists find

19 May 2017, 06:19 | Ross Houston

Green Island moss bank with icebergs. SWNSMore

Green Island moss bank with icebergs. SWNSMore

This is a Green Island moss bank with icebergs.

"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 Dr Matt Amesbury, of the University of Exeter.

Moss growth has "increased by 4 or 5 times" in the past five decades, according to Tom Roland, one of the co-authors of the report.

The team also used models to explore what the future might hold for the continent, taking into account recent research that has suggested that the peninsula has cooled, albeit temporarily, in recent years as a result of changes in wind patterns.

Scientists gathered data from five ice cores drilled from three islands off the Antarctic Peninsula.

Amesbury stresses that they've found similar differences in all of their research cores across Antarctica. "It's likely that there will be faster rates of growth in areas of the world where low temperatures now suppress plant growth", he explained.

Every site showed a significant increase in moss growth, Amesbury said, especially from 1950-80.

They also looked carbon in the plants that indicates how favourable conditions were for photosynthesis at a certain point in time.

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The Antarctic peninsula has been a site of rapid warming, with more days a year where temperatures rise above freezing.

"These changes, combined with increased ice-free land areas from glacier retreat, will drive large-scale adjustment to the biological functioning, appearance, and landscape of the [Antarctic peninsula] over the rest of the 21st century and beyond", they write.

"The conclusions and the results that we've seen show the response of these moss banks to climate change have been pervasive across the whole of the region", Amesbury told CBC News in a phone interview.

Weather records mostly began in the 1950s but biological records preserved in moss bank cores can provide a longer-term context about climate change.

The team reviewed data for the past 150 years, which revealed evidence of changepoints - points in time after which biological activity plainly increased - over the past half century.

A study of moss cores sampled from along the eastern side of the peninsula has provided a unique record of how temperature increases over the last 150 years have affected plant growth. "In short, we could see Antarctic greening to parallel well-established observations in the Arctic".

Matthew Amesbury, a researcher with the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom and the lead author of the study said, "People will think Antarctica is quite an icy place, but our work shows that parts of it are green, and are likely to be getting greener".

The same group of researchers published a study focussing on one site in 2013, and the new research confirms that their unprecedented finding can be applied to a much larger region.

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