02 Aug 2012

Scientists drilling into the seabed off Antarctica revealed that a rainforest grew in the icy continent 52 million years ago.  Scientists warn that Antarctica could be ice-free again within decades.  This new discovery is published in the journal Nature.

Scientists studied sediment cores drilled from the ocean floor off Antarctica's east coast.  They found fossil pollens that were from a "near-tropical" forest covering the continent in the Eocene period 34-56 million years ago.

Kevin Welsh, an Australian scientist who was with the 2010 expedition, said that analysis showed it was "very warm" 52 million years ago, at 20 degrees Celsius (68 F).

"There were forests existing on the land, there wouldn't have been any ice, it would have been very warm."

Higher levels of carbon dioxide are thought to be the major reason for ice-free conditions during the period.  The CO2 estimates were between 990 to a couple of thousand parts per million.

The current CO2 level is 395 ppm and the most extreme predictions made by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) see Antarctica being ice free by the end of the century.

Welsh stated that "it really depends on how emissions go in the future" in terms of how accurate such a prediction could be.

The discoveries here are very important for understanding future climate change and especially considering how Antarctica has a very large volume of water stored on its surface in the form of ice.  Ice on the eastern side of Antarctica is 1.8 to 2.5 miles (3-4 km) thick and is believed to have formed 34 million years ago.

Welsh went on to state:

"If we were to lose a lot of ice from Antarctica then we're going to see a dramatic change in sea level all round the planet."

Welsh elaborates that even a few meters of sea level rise would put large areas of land under water around the coasts of the world.

Source: Belfasttelegraph.co.uk

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