Published: Sat, May 20, 2017
Science | By Cecil Little

Going green: Climate change having 'dramatic' effect on Antarctica's complexion

Going green: Climate change having 'dramatic' effect on Antarctica's complexion

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.

"In the second half of the 20th Century, the Antarctic Peninsula was one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet, at about 0.5C per decade", Amesbury said.

"We can't measure temperature or any other aspect of climate directly in these moss banks, but we can measure things that respond to temperature", said Dr Amesbury, a paleoclimatologist at the University of Exeter. The increase in growth along a long, 400-mile stretch of the peninsula suggests that climate change rather than localised factors are likely to be the cause.

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"The general public has generally heard about the Arctic warming rapidly, and so if somebody asks themselves why Antarctic has not yet warmed so much, this actually gives the explanation", Salzmann said.

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.

They looked at 150 years' worth of data and found clear "changepoints" in the last 50 years that showed the increase of moss cover. Amesbury noted that the consistency of changes in the moss samples taken from different parts of the Peninsula was particularly striking.

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According to Professor Dan Charman, the increase of the sensitivity of moss growth to past temperature rises means the ecosystem is going to face rapid changes due to future warming. What's more, the scientists warn that greening, together with increases in the number of visitors to Antarctica, could make it easier for invasive species to colonise the continent.

"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", said lead author Matt Amesbury, a researcher with the University of Exeter in the United Kingdom. They extracted cores from them-just as scientists do with ice and sediments. The findings appear in Current Biology on May 18.

"The reason we are so confident our mosses are responding primarily to temperature is because of the very wide-scale response we see in our moss banks ... from three different sites 1,000km across the Antarctic Peninsula". Changes in moss levels were tracked by analyzing carbon and reveled that significant changes began after 1950.

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"Even these relatively remote ecosystems show a outcome of anthropogenic climate change", said one of the researchers, Matthew Amesbury.

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