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Antarctica to be `much greener place´ due to climate change, scientists find

19 May 2017

They tested five cores from three sites and found major biological changes had occurred over the past 50 years right across the Antarctic Peninsula.

Dr Matt Amesbury, of the University of Exeter, said: 'Temperature increases over roughly the past half century on the Antarctic Peninsula have had a dramatic effect on moss banks growing in the region.

The polar regions are warming more rapidly than the rest of the Earth, as greenhouse gasses from fossil fuel burning build up in the atmosphere and trap heat.

A study of moss cores sampled from along the eastern side of the peninsula has provided a unique record of how temperature increases over the last 150 years have affected plant growth.

These "proxies" for temperature change include the vertical growth rate of the moss, how much mass it accumulates, and the amount of microbial activity - all of which tell researchers how that moss is responding to changes in temperature and water availability.

Antarctica is getting greener as a result of climate change, scientists said Thursday.

Strikingly green moss carpet on Barrientos Island, South Shetland Islands.

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"This gives us a much clearer idea of the scale over which these changes are occurring", said Amesbury.

Previous studies have looked at the change in moss banks, but either only looked at one area of the peninsula or didn't look at change over a continuous timeframe, Amesbury said. Stretches of the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula are covered with deep, green mossy banks.

"There is 0.34 per cent of the entire Antarctic continent that is predominantly ice-free", Dr Amesbury said.

"The sensitivity of moss growth to past temperature rises suggests that ecosystems will alter rapidly under future warming, leading to major changes in the biology and landscape of this iconic region", said researcher Dan Charman, a professor at Exeter.

"The moss banks grow upwards over time".

Every site showed a significant increase in moss growth, Amesbury said, especially from 1950-80.

"Imagine that was a tree and it was growing four times as fast".

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Average annual temperatures on the peninsula - the panhandle that points toward South America - have gone up almost 3 degrees Celsius (5.4 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 1950s, when researchers started keeping detailed weather records.

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.

Before the 1950s the moss banks would grow by about 1mm a year.

Weather records mostly began in the 1950s but biological records preserved in moss bank cores can provide a longer-term context about climate change.

Green Island was one of the sites used in the study.

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Antarctica to be `much greener place´ due to climate change, scientists find