Ancient Antarctic Rainforest Discovered

By Amir Khan on August 2, 2012 10:55 AM EDT

Antarctica
Antarctica, a frozen desert. (Photo: NASA)

Researchers drilling on a seabed near Antarctica discovered that approximately 50 million years ago, a rainforest grew on the icy continent. They also warned that unless climate change is stopped, we could see a rainforest grow there again sooner than later.

Researchers studying sediment cores found fossilized pollen that came from a near-tropical forest that covered the continent during the Eocene period, approximately 34 million to 56 million years ago. An analysis of the core revealed that Antarctica was much warmer back then, most likely around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

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"There were forests existing on the land, there wouldn't have been any ice, it would have been very warm," Kevin Welsh, a researcher on the project, told Agence France Presse. "It's quite surprising, because obviously our image of Antarctica is that it's very cold and full of ice."

Back then, high levels of carbon dioxide likely contributed to the higher heat levels, researchers said. CO2 levels were likely between 990 and "a couple of thousand" parts per million, compared to the 395ppm it is today.

However, CO2 levels are increasing, and they could pose a problem for the future of Antarctica.

"It's difficult to say, because that's really controlled by people's and governments' actions," Walsh said. "It really depends on how emissions go in the future."

Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide and ozone, trap heat in the atmosphere and act as a blanket, raising temperatures and causing climate change. Global temperature increases could affect sea levels, crops and animal habitats. Scientists expect heat waves, cold snaps, hurricanes and other extreme weather events to increase as temperatures increase, according to EPA officials.

As greenhouse gases, carbon dioxide in particular, increase, Antarctic ice will continue to melt, which can be disastrous.

"It shows that if we go through periods of higher CO2 in the atmosphere it's very likely that there will be dramatic changes on these very important areas of the globe where ice currently exists," Walsh said. "If we were to lose a lot of ice from Antarctica then we're going to see a dramatic change in sea level all around the planet."

Melting sea ice plays a large role in climate change and the reduction can be disastrous for species that call the Arctic home, according to Environmental Protection Agency officials.

Melting ice contributed to sea levels that rose 5 to 6 inches over the last century, according to the EPA. A higher sea level means coastal ecosystems such as salt marshes and mangroves are at risk of being destroyed and cities along coastal areas are at an increased risk of flooding, according to the EPA.

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