Antarctica’s lost ‘ancient forest’ found deep within continent’s hulking ice

Antarctica: Scientists find area where no life exists

As the Earth’s fifth largest and most southerly continent, Antarctica has captured the attention and imagination of countless people.

Temperatures there regularly drop below -90C, making it one of the most inhospitable places on the planet.

This hasn’t stopped humans from exploring it, however, and anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 people currently live there.

Against all odds, Antarctica has a thriving wild animal population with around 235 different species calling the continent home.

It appears that it could well have been home to much more flora and fauna in history, as research suggests Antarctica was once teeming with life and home to a temperate forest.

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The breakthrough discovery was made after a mission found fossilised plant roots preserved under the ocean since the time of the dinosaurs.

Explored during the science journal Nature’s short documentary, ‘An ancient Antarctic Rainforest’, the narrator noted: “It seems this freezing landscape was once home to a lush forest.”

Dr Johann Klages, a scientist from the Alfred Wegener Institute in Germany who led the research, said: “90 million years ago, a temperate rainforest existed in West Antarctica only 900 kilometres away from the South Pole.”

He and his team set out with a special drill to extract a core of material around 30 metres into the sea floor in 2020, finding that the annual mean temperature of a strip of western Antarctic coastline was 12C.

This would have seen the region enveloped in a swampy rainforest environment.

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“When we recovered the core, we could already see what was inside and that it was very unusual,” said Dr Klages. “And therefore we decided to scan them in a CT scanner back home.”

Showing a visualisation of a long, green and yellow thread-like material showing the different properties from the item found in the ice, Dr Klages explained: “So what we see there is the overview of the CT-scanned core and the yellow strata that we see is the sandstone, and now we transition into the network of fossil roots.

“We can nicely see how the roots are connected with each other and are pristinely preserved.

“We have thin roots, we have thick roots, and it’s really a network as you would go to the forest near you and drill into the current forest.”

The team studied the core and analysed fossilised pollen and spores, helping them to find yet more information about what the ancient rainforest would have looked like and how it worked.

“It revealed a very warm temperature for this latitude, and annual mean temperatures that are similar to those of Northern Italy,” explained Dr Klages.

“It would be very certain that also dinosaurs and insects lived in that environment, and in an environment that was dark for about four months during the year because we have the polar night.”

It was one of the warmest periods in the Earth’s history, with carbon dioxide levels several times higher than they are today.

The team hopes that the information they can glean from the ice stores will help them in their research in preparing for the future, as the brief glimpse into the past may offer insight into what a hotter planet could look like. 

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