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Antarctica is turning green due to rising temperatures

19 May 2017, 04:17 | Bernard Bryant

A Green Island moss bank with icebergs. Credit Matt Amesbury

Antarctica'greening due to climate change

In addition to climate change, the extinction of animal species, plastic waste - there could be more of that than fish in the sea by 2050 - ash from fossil fuels and radioactive particles from nuclear bomb tests will all leave a permanent record in the planet's future rocks.

Scientists studying banks of moss in Antarctica report that plant life on the continent is blooming.

"The sensitivity of moss growth to past temperature rises suggests that ecosystems will alter rapidly under future warming, leading to major changes in the biology and landscape of this iconic region", said co-author Dan Charman, also from Exeter.

"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.

"What we're also seeing concurrently with climate change are other physical processes such as glacier retreat particularly", Dr Amesbury said.

Taken together, the team say the results show that moss banks across the region are responding to warming, adding that variations in the measure of favourability for photosynthesis between sites is likely down to local differences in moisture levels. Their findings appeared Thursday in the journal Current Biology.

Those sites include three Antarctic islands - Elephant Island, Ardley Island, and Green Island - where the deepest and oldest moss banks grow.

"The benefits of our work and our sites that we've been able to study is that we can make conclusions about a wide area", Dr Amesbury said.

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

"On average, in terms of the growth rate of moss before and after 1950, there has been a four to five-fold increase in average growth rates".

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. These included the amount of moss, its rate of growth, the size of populations of microbes and a ratio of different forms, or isotopes, of carbon in the plants that indicates how favourable conditions were for photosynthesis at a particular point in time.

"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.

While the prospect of more plant growth might sound like a good thing from a greenhouse gas perspective, Professor Robinson said the warming could potentially release greenhouse gases from the ancient buried moss, which has so far remained frozen.

The researchers looked at 150 years of data and samples of the moss from around the peninsula.

"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.

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