Antarctica was once covered in forest, study reports

A group of scientists have found fossil evidence that shows Antarctica was once covered in lush, humid forests.
By Tobi Gerdes | Nov 14, 2017
Fossil fragments of ancient trees uncovered in Antarctica suggest that the frozen continent was once a thriving forest.

This discovery comes from researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, who climbed the slopes of the McIntyre Promontory in the Transantarctic Mountains in order to conduct their research. That expedition allowed them to recover ancient remains from 13 different tree species that existed over 260 million years ago.

"We take it for granted that Antarctica has always been a frozen wilderness, but the ice caps only appeared relatively recently in geological history," said Jane Francis, a researcher at the University of Leeds who was not involved in the research, according toBBC News.

The fossils show a forest existed on Antarctica at the end of the Permian Period, which occurred right before the first dinosaurs walked the Earth. The age ended roughly 251 million years ago when a mass extinction event rapidly shifted climate conditions across the world. Nearly 90 percent of all species were wiped out, including the polar forests.

While the team cannot know for certain, they believe major increase in atmospheric greenhouse gases -- such as methane and carbon dioxide -- fueled the ancient climate shifts.

Not only was Antarctica quite humid during the end of the Permian Period, it also belonged to the Gondwana supercontinent, a massive land mass that spanned the Southern Hemisphere and included what is now the Arabian Peninsula, Australia, India, Africa, and South America.

The forests that ranged across the continent likely had a mix of ferns, mosses, and a now-extinct plant known as Glossopteris. That unique composition would have made the vegetation much different than the forests we have today.

While the regions were robust, the different species did not have the ability to survive the high greenhouse gas concentrations spewed out during the mass extinction event. The team hopes to further study the site where the remains were found in order to get a better idea of the ancient landscape and figure out why that is. Such study could then help shed light on how today's forests may adapt to current climate change.

"With further study, we can better understand how greenhouse gases and climate change affect life on Earth," saidErik Gulbranson, a geologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, according toTech Times.

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