When you think of Antarctica, you probably imagine a frigid, windswept, icy, inhospitable domain; the whitest, most barren canvas on Earth. That's pretty much the way the Southern continent has been for at least the last 3 million years, since the last time atmospheric carbon dioxide levels approached their current levels. But times, they are a-changing.
The effects of global warming are beginning to radically alter the Antarctic landscape in some surprising ways. Scientists say it's like looking back in time, to an epoch when this bleached terrain was actually green. Mossy mats are rapidly spreading across the thawed, exposed soils at unprecedented rates, transforming the land from a place of desolation, to a place of viridescence.
At the very least, we're getting a peek at Antarctica's future, which like its past was green and filled with plant-life, reports the Washington Post.
“This is another indicator that Antarctica is moving backward in geologic time — which makes sense, considering atmospheric CO2 levels have already risen to levels that the planet hasn’t seen since the Pliocene, 3 million years ago, when the Antarctic ice sheet was smaller, and sea-levels were higher,” said Rob DeConto, a glaciologist at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
“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.”
So far, the greening of Antarctica is mostly limited to the peninsula, where two different species of mosses are fanning out at a startling clip, at four to five times the rate seen just a few decades ago. They gain a footing in the summers, when the frozen ground thaws, then freeze back over in the winter. But these layers-upon-layers are thickening, generating an increasingly detailed record of Antarctica's warming climate.
It's perhaps only a matter of time before grasses, bushes, perhaps even trees begin to sprout. As beautiful as a forested Antarctica might be to imagine, it's important to remember that this isn't necessarily a good thing. Climate change is an ambiguous beast; Antarctica might be getting greener, but deserts elsewhere in the world are expanding, sea levels are rising, and weather is becoming more severe.
“These changes, combined with increased ice-free land areas from glacier retreat, will drive large-scale alteration to the biological functioning, appearance, and landscape of the [Antarctic peninsula] over the rest of the 21st century and beyond,” wrote the authors of the study, which was published in the journal Current Biology.
Lead author Matthew Amesbury added: “Even these relatively remote ecosystems, that people might think are relatively untouched by human kind, are showing the effects of human induced climate change.”