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Antarctica, climate change, and the biological answer: A new green continent

Scientists warn of the “greening” process in the Antarctic Peninsula. Global warming, along with the increase of tourism in Antarctica may result, more rapidly, in the colonization of invasive species; thus causing rapid changes in the zone’s ecosystems.

Antarctica is the fourth largest continent of the planet, with a surface of more than 14,000,000 km². Approximately 98% of Antarctica is covered by an ice layer with an average of 1.6 km of density. The continent has approximately 90% of the world’s ice (around 70% of the planet). During the second half of the XX century, the Antarctic Peninsula experienced considerable increases in temperature; around half a degree (Celsius) by decade. Global warming in the last 50 years has motivated biologic activity. As a result, moss banks have set up with a growth rate that is now four to five times higher than in the period previous to 1950.

It is known that vegetal life in the Antarctic is limited; it only exists in 0.3% of the continent. However, moss, well-preserved in cold deposits, offers scientists a way to study how plants have responded over the last 150 years, exploring changes through different factors: carbon isotope discrimination, microbial productivity, vertical growth of moss banks and mass accumulation rates. These plants have allowed the study of favorable conditions for photosynthesis in particular moments in time.

“This is linking into other processes that are happening on the Antarctic Peninsula at the moment, particularly things like glacier retreat which are freeing up new areas of ice-free land – and the mosses particularly are very effective colonisers of those new areas,” claimed Matt Amesbury, co-author of the research of the University of Exeter.

British scientists of the College of Life and Environmental Sciences, University of Exeter, British Antarctic Survey, University of Cambridge, and the University of Durham have collected data in five vertical columns of sediments, on three islands located just next to the Antarctic Peninsula. Studies show that in the last 50 years the amount and growth rate of plants have significantly increased, which suggests that a higher global warming may result in rapid alteration of terrestrial ecosystems in the future, and causing the white landscape of the continent to turn green.

This research counted with the support of the Initiative to Fund the Antarctic, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) of the United Kingdom, which contributes with the research program of the British Antarctic Survey, Polar Science for Planet Earth (program which has been in charge of most part of the scientific research of the United Kingdom in the zone). Likewise, scientists counted with the valuable contribution of the Lab of Isotope Geosciences of the NERC; and the collection of samples was accomplished thanks to the support of the HMS Protector and HMS Endurance of the Royal British Navy vessel crews.

The study (Amesbury et al., Widespread Biological Response to Rapid Warming on the Antarctic Peninsula), published in May 2017 in the journal Current Biology # 27, is available online.

Written by: Marianna Collet C.

Translator: Carmen Quintero

Provita Jul 12, 2017


IUCN Red List of Ecosystems


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