280-Million-Year-Old Fossil Forest Discovered in … Antarctica

Nov 15, 2017

By Stephanie Pappas

Antarctica wasn’t always a land of ice. Millions of years ago, when the continent was still part of a huge Southern Hemisphere landmass called Gondwana, trees flourished near the South Pole.

Now, newfound, intricate fossils of some of these trees are revealing how the plants thrived — and what forests might look like as they march northward in today’s warming world.

“Antarctica preserves an ecologic history of polar biomes that ranges for about 400 million years, which is basically the entirety of plant evolution,” said Erik Gulbranson, a paleoecologist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

It’s hard to look at Antarctica’s frigid landscape today and imagine lush forests. To find their fossil specimens, Gulbranson and his colleagues have to disembark from planes landed on snowfields, then traverse glaciers and brave bone-chilling winds. But from about 400 million to 14 million years ago, the southern continent was a very different, and much greener place. The climate was warmer, though the plants that survived at the low southern latitudes had to cope with winters of 24-hour-per-day darkness and summers during which the sun never set, just as today.

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One comment on “280-Million-Year-Old Fossil Forest Discovered in … Antarctica”

  • In fact, there is a whole fossil landscape beneath the Antarctic ice!


    Antarctic glacier’s rough belly exposed

    New radar images reveal the mighty Pine Island Glacier (PIG) to be sitting on a rugged rock bed populated by big hills, tall cliffs and deep scour marks.

    Such features are likely to slow the ice body’s retreat as the climate warms, researchers say.

    The study appears in the journal Nature Communications.

    It is this type of data that is now being reported by the British team, who dragged radar instruments over the glacier in a weeks-long campaign in the southern summer of 2013/14.

    Radar can see through hundreds of metres of ice to sense the topography at the base of the glacier. And although the expedition could not map the PIG’s full extent, sampling was done at key places on the main flowing trunk and the major tributaries. A total of 1,500 sq km was imaged.

    What was expected was that the basal rock would show lineations from the scouring effects of ice that has been moving across it for millions of years.

    What was unexpected though was the scale of the relief seen in a number of areas.

    “In one place at the bed of Pine Island, the ice mounts a cliff that’s almost vertical and some 400m high,” explained Dr Bingham.

    “This would be a totally incredible feature if you could stand in front of it and see it for yourself. But it’s buried deep under the ice. At the surface of the glacier, of course, you wouldn’t even know that it’s down there because the top of the PIG is so flat.”

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