In a dramatic display of the effects of climate change on the planet, plant life has begun developing faster in Antarctica, according to a new study. Banks of moss are growing on the northern peninsula of the continent, including two different species that scientists say are enjoying the plant equivalent of growth spurts. The mosses, which normally grow at rates less than 1 millimeter annually, have been growing 3 millimeters per year on average. The study was published Thursday in Current Biology, by a team including Matthew Amesbury, a researcher with the University of Exeter, as well as researchers from the University of Cambridge, the British Antarctic Survey, and the University of Durham.
According to Amesbury:
“People will think of Antarctica quite rightly as a very icy place, but our work shows that parts of it are green, and are likely to be getting greener. Even these relatively remote ecosystems, that people might think are relatively untouched by human kind, are showing the effects of human induced climate change.”
Currently, plant life is found on less than one percent of Antarctica, but mosses are now growing in parts of the northern peninsula in areas where just the first foot of soil thaws in the summer. A layer builds up in the summer, freezes in the winter, and is preserved by the low temperatures. This provides scientists with “a record of changes over time,” according to Amesbury.
Researchers examined soil samples from a 400-mile area on the northern end of the Antarctic peninsula, finding dramatic changes through the last 150 years.
The continent has seen some of the most rapid warming anywhere in the planet, with more days above freezing each year. According to the study, this has led to a four to five-fold increase in the growth of moss in recent years.
The researchers said this is most likely just beginning of changes in the region. They wrote:
“These changes, combined with increased ice-free land areas from glacier retreat, will drive large-scale alteration to the biological functioning, appearance, and landscape of the [Antarctic peninsula] over the rest of the 21st century and beyond.”
The changes in Antarctica are still minimal compared with the Arctic, where scientists hope the increase in plant growth could offset carbon losses from thawing permafrost there. This may be a long ways off for Antarctica, but according to Amesbury:
“We’re starting back on a journey towards that sort of environment. Certainly, Antarctica has not always been the ice place it has been now on very long timescales.”