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Antarctic Has Seen Widespread Change In Last 50 Years

19 May 2017, 09:21 | Kevin Scott

Antarctica's Green Island moss bank with icebergs in the background. | Matt Amesbury

Antarctica's Green Island moss bank with icebergs in the background. |         Matt Amesbury

The Arctic is warming the fastest, but Antarctica is not far behind, with annual temperatures gaining nearly one degree Fahrenheit (half degree Celsius) each decade since the 1950s.

The moss growth is still less compared to what is happening at the Arctic, where a large scale moss growth has been captured by satellites.

Scientists have found a sharp increase in biological activity in the last 50 years.

"If you'd taken a photograph of these parts of the Peninsula 50 years ago it would have been a monochrome shot of ice", Dominic Hodgson, another of the study's co-authors, told CNN.

The results suggest that even modest future warming could lead to further, rapid changes in Antarctica's ecosystems.

"The temperature has been rising since the middle of last century in Antarctica, which has a major effect on the growth of moss in the region", said Matt Amesbury, a researcher at Exeter's UK University.

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Strikingly green moss carpet on Barrientos Island, South Shetland Islands. "These changes, combined with increased ice-free land areas from glacier retreat, will drive large-scale adjustment to the biological functioning, appearance, and landscape of the [Antarctic peninsula] over the rest of the 21st century and beyond", they write. Those sites include three Antarctic islands (Elephant Island, Ardley Island, and Green Island) where the deepest and oldest moss banks grow, representing a 600-kilometer transect along the Peninsula. They are going to study the severity of the effect before global warming was enhanced by human activities.

"The common perception of Antarctica is it's a very white and icy place and on the whole that's absolutely correct", Amesbury said. Recent studies of the Antarctic continent have revealed some seriously attractive changes, but as the result of pretty devastating melting from global warming. What's more, the scientists warn that greening, together with increases in the number of visitors to Antarctica, could make it easier for invasive species to colonise the continent.

Recent climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula is well documented, with warming and other changes such as increased precipitation and wind strength.

While the prospect of more plant growth might sound like a good thing from a greenhouse gas perspective, Professor Robinson said the warming could potentially release greenhouse gases from the ancient buried moss, which has so far remained frozen.

" The sensitivity of foam growth to the rise in temperature in the past suggests that adjustment of ecosystems will occur rapidly with the current global warming, which will result in upheavals in the biology and landscape of this ecosystem".

The researchers, who were funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), now plan to examine core records dating back over thousands of years to test how much climate change affected ecosystems before human activity started causing global warming. Amesbury noted that the consistency of changes in the moss samples taken from different parts of the Peninsula was particularly striking.



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