Prehistoric Antarctica shoreline: artist's conception of flora living during the Middle Miocene epoch.
Prehistoric Antarctica shoreline: artist's conception of flora living during the Middle Miocene epoch.Courtesy NASA / JPL-Caltech / Dr. Philip Bart, LSU
Recent investigations into microfossils show that Antarctica hasn’t been quite the icebox scientists have imagined it to be over the past 34 million years. Pollen and leaf wax samples from Miocene-aged sediments indicate the continent has experienced some periods of warming since the beginning of the most recent glacial period. The core samples studied came from ocean sediments collected near Antarctica, and particulates found in the samples indicate more rain fell on the ice-covered continent during the Middle Miocene epoch (15.5 – 20 million years ago) than previously thought, enough rain to spur the growth of forests of small, stunted trees.

Paleoclimatologist and organic geochemist Sarah Feakins of the University of Southern California and her colleagues analyzed core samples taken from between 144 and 1,100 meters beneath the ocean floor – levels dating back to the Middle Miocene. Spikes of concentrated amounts of pollens and leaf wax appeared in two periods – one about 16.4 million years ago, and another about 15.7 million years ago. The warm periods were relatively short, each lasting less than 30,000 years.

In a previous study, palynologist Sophie Warny of Louisiana State University had first described the pollen and leaf wax spikes found in the core samples, and she and Feakins eventually teamed up for the recent study. The team determined the particle spikes didn’t arise from the leaf wax and pollen blowing in from elsewhere but rather came from two species of trees that once lined the shores of Antarctica. The two species, podocarp conifer and southern beech wouldn’t have grown very tall – maybe knee-high – and neither spreads their pollen over wide areas. Had the pollens blown in from elsewhere - say South America or New Zealand - there were would have been more species in the mix.

Using a mass spectrometer, Feakins and NASA researchers analyzed the ratio of hydrogen to deuterium atoms in the wax molecules which indicated the temperature at the Antarctica location during the two warm periods was about 7 degrees Celsius during the summer. Today, summer temperatures in the same region are about –4 °C. The average global temperature at the time was about 3 °C higher than it is today. As the overall global temperature changes a relatively greater change in polar temperature isn't unexpected due to a process called polar amplification.

The data from Feakins and Warny’s study, which appeared in Nature Geoscience, adds to growing concerns over the sensitivity of Earth’s climatic and hydrological systems. At the moment, no trees line the shores of Antarctica, but current levels of carbon dioxide (393 parts per million) are not far off those thought to have existed during the Middle Miocene’s warm periods (400-600 parts per million) when forests did exist on the margins of the icy continent. This could indicate that even small changes in carbon dioxide levels can are capable of creating big changes in climate.

Earth magazine
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