Ancient ice-free polar forest could soon return

An artist’s impression of the temperate rainforest in West Antarctica 90 million years ago. Image: By Alfred-Wegener-Institut/J. McKay (Creative Commons licence)

An ice-free polar forest once flourished, helped by enough heat and ample greenhouse gas. It could come back.

LONDON, 10 April, 2020 – Many millions of years ago, the southern continent wasn’t frozen at all, but basked in heat balmy enough for an ice-free polar forest to thrive. And ancient pre-history could repeat itself.

Climate scientists can tell you what the world could be like were today’s greenhouse gas concentrations to triple – which they could do if humans go on clearing tropical forests and burning fossil fuels.

They know because, 90 million years ago, the last time when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere went past the 1200 ppm (parts per million) mark, sea levels were 170 metres higher than today and the world was so warm that dense forests grew in what is now Antarctica.

At latitude 82 South, a region where the polar night lasts for four months, there was no icecap. Instead, the continental rocks were colonised by conifer forest, with a mix of tree ferns and an understorey of flowering shrubs.

Even though at that latitude the midday sun would have been relatively low in the sky, and the forests would have had to survive sustained winter darkness for a dozen weeks or more, average temperatures would have been that of modern day Tasmania, and a good 2C° warmer than modern Germany.

“Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate forests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than we expected”

German and British researchers report in the journal Nature that they took a closer look at a sequence of strangely-coloured mudstone in a core drilled 30 metres below the bottom of the sea floor, off West Antarctica.

The section of sediment had been preserved from the mid-Cretaceous, around 90 million years ago, in a world dominated by dinosaurs. By then, the first mammals may have evolved, the grasses were about to emerge, and seasonal flowering plants had begun to colonise a planet dominated for aeons by evergreens.

And in the preserved silt were pollens, spores, tangled roots and other plant material so well preserved that the researchers could not just identify the plant families, but even take a guess at parallels with modern forests. Before their eyes was evidence of something like the modern rainforests of New Zealand’s South Island, but deep inside the Antarctic Circle.

“The preservation of this 90 million-year-old forest is exceptional, but even more surprising is the world it reveals,” said Tina van de Flierdt, of Imperial College London.

“Even during months of darkness, swampy temperate forests were able to grow close to the South Pole, revealing an even warmer climate than we expected.”

British rain levels

Somewhere between 115 and 85 million years ago, the whole world was a lot hotter: in the tropics temperatures reached 35°C and the average temperature of that part of the Antarctic was 13°C. This is at least two degrees higher than the average temperature for modern Germany.

Average temperatures in summer went up to 18.5°C, and the water temperatures in the swamps and rivers tipped 20°C, only 900 kms from the then South Pole. Modern Antarctica is classed as desert, with minimal precipitation: then it would have seen 1120 mm a year. People from southwestern Scotland or parts of Wales would have felt at home.

It is an axiom of earth science that the present is key to the past: if such forests today can flourish at existing temperatures, then the same must have been true in the deep past.

So climate scientists from the start have taken a close interest in the evidence of intensely warm periods in the fossil record: a mix of plant and animal remains, the ratio of chemical isotopes preserved in rock, and even the air bubbles trapped in deep ice cores can help them reconstruct the temperatures, the composition of the atmosphere and the rainfall of, for example, the warmest periods of the Pliocene, when carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere tipped the 1000 ppm mark, and average planetary temperatures rose by 9°C.

Prehistoric encore approaching?

In the past century, atmospheric CO2 levels have swollen from 285 ppm to more than 400 ppm, and the planetary thermometer has already crept up by 1°C above the level for most of human history. If human economies continue burning fossil fuels at an ever-increasing rate, the conditions that prevailed 56 million years ago could return by 2159.

The Cretaceous evidence will help climate scientists calibrate their models of a world in which greenhouse gas emissions go on rising.

“Before our study, the general assumption was that the global carbon dioxide concentration in the Cretaceous was roughly 1000 ppm,” said Johann Klages, of the Alfred Wegener Institute centre for polar and marine research in Germany, who led the study.

“But in our model-based experiments, it took concentration levels of 1120 to 1680 ppm to reach the average temperatures back then in Antarctica.” – Climate News Network