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Antarctica was home to rainforests

Date: 03 April 2020 Tags: Climate Change

Issue

Researchers have unearthed evidence of rainforests near the South Pole 90 million years ago, a finding which suggests that the climate at this time was exceptionally warm with a higher level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than previously thought.

 

Background

The scientists discovered forest soil pertaining to a time between 145 and 66 million years ago within 900 kilometres of the South Pole.

 

Details

  • In the study, they analysed preserved roots, pollen, and spores from this soil, and showed that the world at that time, the Cretaceous period, was a lot warmer than previously thought.

  • Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate rainforests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than expected.

  • According to the study, the carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were higher than expected during the mid-Cretaceous period, 115-80 million years ago, challenging current climate models of the period.

  • The mid-Cretaceous was the heyday of the dinosaurs but was also the warmest period in the past 140 million years, with temperatures in the tropics as high as 35 degrees Celsius, and sea level 170 metres higher than today.

  • According to the researchers, the presence of the forest suggests average temperatures in this region were around 12 degrees Celsius, with little likelihood for the presence of an ice cap at the South Pole at the time.

  • The study noted that the evidence for the Antarctic forest is based on a core of sediment drilled into the seabed near the Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica.

  • On scanning this section with an X-ray CT scan, the scientists discovered a dense network of fossil roots, which was so well preserved that they could make out individual cell structures.

  • To reconstruct this ecology, the team assessed the climatic conditions under which the plants’ modern descendants live, as well as analysing temperature and rainfall indicators within the sample.

  • They believe the average summer temperatures may have been around 19 degrees Celsius and water temperatures in the rivers and swamps to be 20 degrees.

  • According to the study, the amount and intensity of rainfall in West Antarctica at this time may have been similar to those in today’s Wales.

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