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Department of Plant Sciences

Widespread ecological changes in Antarctica

Work published in Current Biology this week by Jessica Royles and Howard Griffiths, along with colleagues from the University of Exeter and British Antarctic Survey shows that plant life on Antarctica is growing rapidly due to climate change.

The team used moss bank cores – which are well preserved in Antarctica’s cold conditions – from three islands representing a 600-kilometer transect along the Antarctic Peninsula and found major biological changes had occurred over the past 50 years right across the region. Moss growth and accumulation rates increased, as did populations of testate amoebae - tiny organisms living on the moss.

Recent climate change on the Antarctic Peninsula is well documented, with warming and other changes such as increased precipitation and wind strength. Weather records mostly began in the 1950s, but biological records preserved in moss bank cores provide a longer-term context about climate change.  The scientists analysed data for the last 150 years, and found clear evidence of “changepoints” – points in time after which biological activity clearly increased – in the past half century. The data suggest that Antarctic plants and soils will change substantially even with only modest further warming.

The research was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).

Amesbury, M. J., Roland,T.P., Royles, J., Hodgson, D. A., Convey, P., Griffiths, H, Charman, D. J. Widespread response to rapid warming on the Antarctic Peninsula. Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2017.04.034