Earth Science In the News: The Forests of Antarctica?

An aerial view of Laubeuf Fjord to a part of Adelaide Island's east coast, in the southwest Antarctic Peninsula region. Photo by Vincent van Zeijst, Wikimedia Commons

By Jim Brace-Thompson

Towering forests on the frozen, ice-bound continent of Antarctica?  It may be hard to imagine, but that’s what newly analyzed seafloor sediments suggest!

During the Cretaceous Period, back when dinosaurs ruled Earth, Antarctica was much more temperate. This, per a team led by marine geologist Johann Klages of Germany that published their research in a recent issue of the journal Nature. In fact, the climate may have been much like parts of Europe today, with summer temperatures averaging around 68° to 77° Fahrenheit. These moderate temperatures so close to the South Pole were likely due to much higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere back then (between 1,000 and 1,600 parts per million) as compared to today (400 ppm).

The evidence comes from core samples scientists retrieved by drilling into the seafloor off the coast of West Antarctica. Those samples hold forest soils with fossil pollen, spores, and tree roots that suggest a temperate, swampy rainforest. Thus far, scientists have identified some 65 different types of flora, including ferns, conifer trees, and flowering plants. The samples have been dated at 93-83 million years ago. Appropriately enough, these forest sediments came from the floor of Pine Island Bay.