Antarctica was once a rainforest. Could it be again?
The coldest continent on Earth used to be as warm as Italy. Here’s how we know.
Not far from the South Pole, more than half a mile below the ocean in a region that was once covered by ice, a layer of ancient fossils tells a surprising story about the coldest continent on Earth. Today, the South Pole records average winter temperatures of 78 degrees Fahrenheit below zero. But roughly 90 million years ago, the fossils suggest, Antarctica was as warm as Italy and covered by a green expanse of rainforest.
“That was an exciting time for Antarctica,” Johann P. Klages, a marine geologist who helped unearth the fossils, told Vox. “It was basically the last time the whole continent was covered by vegetation and probably also wildlife — dinosaurs, and all that.”
Intrepid polar scientists like Klages, who works at the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven, Germany, are revealing new sides of the Antarctica we know today. In the April 2020 issue of the journal Nature, he and 39 colleagues described networks of fossilized tree roots that they pulled up from the seafloor in 2017. They’re a sign of just how much the polar climate has changed since the “supergreenhouse” of the Cretaceous period — and perhaps how much the climate could change again.
Even since that paper, the Antarctic surprises have kept coming. In October, a Brazilian research team announced that it found 75-million-year-old pieces of charcoal on James Ross Island, hundreds of miles south of South America. In the journal Polar Research, the researchers concluded that “paleofires,” which were common in the rest of the prehistoric world, also scorched the Antarctic Peninsula. “That’s exciting work,” Klages said. “It’s the first evidence for these wildfires.”
As climate change warms Antarctica and shrinks its enormous ice sheet, many scientists are wondering whether history could repeat itself.
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