Climate change could one day make Antarctica a forest again, research suggests

Researchers in Antarctica have suggested that increased growth of mosses in parts of the continent due to climate change could show that it could perhaps one day be home to forests again.

Antarctic moss is growing faster due to increasing temperatures on the continent, new research shows. Source: Matthew Ames/1 NEWS composite

Matthew Amesbury of the University of Exeter told The Washington Post that mosses on Antarctica's northern peninsula have been growing at about 3mm per year - up from about 1mm per year 50 years ago.

The study, which Mr Amesbury was produced with six other researchers, was published this week in the Current Biology journal.

That increasing growth could be a sign of a more hospitable environment for plant life - and are definitely a sign of human-induced climate change.

"Even these relatively remote ecosystems, that people might think are relatively untouched by human kind, are showing the effects of human-induced climate change," Mr Amesbury said.

Soil samples taken from 650km of area in Antarctica show how the mosses have grown over time, as once they grow during the summer, the older mosses subside into the frozen ground where they are preserved.

Charts and graphs from the study showing the area surveyed and derived temperature readings as far back as 1950. Source: Current Biology / Matthew J. Amesbury, Thomas P. Roland, Jessica Royles, Dominic A. Hodgson, Peter Convey, Howard Griffiths, Dan J. Charman

The samples show rapid warming in recent times, with more days per year above freezing temperature than ever before.

University of Massachusetts glaciologists Rob DeConto, who didn't author the research but did review it for The Washington Post, said Antarctica is essentially moving backwards in geological time.

"If greenhouse gas emissions continue unchecked, Antarctica will head even further back in geologic time," he said.

"Perhaps the peninsula will even become forested again someday, like it was during the greenhouse climates of the Cretaceous and Eocene, when the continent was ice free."

Antarctica's greening trend is still small compared with what has been observed at the other pole in the Arctic, where plant growth has exploded as permafrost continues to decay.