Frozen and desolate Antarctica once boasted warm, swampy rainforests

Antarctica Rainforest Map

Antarctica Rainforest Map

CT-scans of the section revealed fossilized root systems so well-preserved that scientists could see individual cell structures, as well as pollen and spore specimens from some of the first flowering plants ever found at such Antarctic latitudes.

To piece together the ancient puzzle, an worldwide team of researchers extracted sediment samples from the seabed near an area known as the Amundsen Sea Embayment close to Pine Island and Thwaites glaciers in West Antarctica. "The forest was a temperate - not a tropical - rainforest, similar to the forests found today in New Zealand", Salzmann said.

Geologist Johann Klages, author of the study from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Polar and Marine Research Center in Germany, said, "This is definitely evidence of the Cretaceous".

Tina van de Fliert of ICL said that this is an "exceptional" discovery, adding that "even more surprising is the world it reveals".

Taken together, the work reveals that a temperate rainforest-like the kind of coniferous rainforest found in parts of New Zealand or the United States's Pacific Northwest-existed around 900 kilometers (560 miles) from the Cretaceous-period South Pole.

The mid-Cretaceous was the heyday of the dinosaurs but was also the warmest period in the past 140 million years, with temperatures in the tropics as high as 35 degrees Celsius, and sea level 170 metres higher than today, the scientists said.

The soil core sample dated from 93-83 million years ago, Dr Klages said.

Antarctica may have once been home to warm, swampy ecosystems surrounded by ferns and conifer trees 90 million years ago.

According to the researchers, the presence of the forest suggests average temperatures in this region were around 12 degrees Celsius, with little likelihood for the presence of an ice cap at the South Pole at the time.

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The Antarctic ice sheet didn't exist at the time. But a full picture of life at the South Pole has long eluded scientists.

In order to establish the climatic conditions of the time, the team compared the environments in which the fossilized plants' modern descendants live.

Lead author of the study, Dr Johann Klages, said: "Before our study, the general assumption was that the global Carbon dioxide concentration in the Cretaceous was roughly 1000 parts per million (ppm)".

The sediment core obtained by scientists working aboard the research icebreaker RV Polarstern in the Amundsen Sea near the Pine Island Glacier dated to about 90 million years ago during the Cretaceous Period when dinosaurs were the dominant land animals. For comparison, that's two degrees warmer than the mean temperature in Germany today. "Summer temperatures averaged 19 degrees Celsius and water temperatures in rivers and swamps reached up to 20 degrees". They estimate rainfall reached about 97 inches per year - about the same as Wales today. This is despite a four-month polar night, meaning for a third of every year there was no life-giving sunlight at all.

The findings also indicate carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were higher than expected during the mid-Cretaceous period, which is considered the age of the dinosaurs.

The high amount of carbon dioxide, combined with an ice sheet-less Antarctica covered in vegetation created the right conditions for a rainforest environment.

The research underscores the dramatic climate changes Earth has undergone in the past - and is now undergoing today.

"Before our study, the general assumption was that the global carbon dioxide concentration in the Cretaceous was roughly 1000 ppm".

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