Secrets of Antarctica's fossilised forests

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

It may be hard to believe, but Antarctica was once covered in towering forests.

One hundred million years ago, the Earth was in the grip of an extreme Greenhouse Effect.

The polar ice caps had all but melted; in the south, rainforests inhabited by dinosaurs existed in their place.

These Antarctic ecosystems were adapted to the long months of winter darkness that occur at the poles, and were truly bizarre.

But if global warming continues unabated, could these ancient forests be a taste of things to come?

One of the first people to uncover evidence for a once greener Antarctic was none other than the explorer, Robert Falcon Scott.

Toiling back from the South Pole in 1912, he stumbled over fossil plants on the Beardmore Glacier at 82 degrees south. The extra weight of these specimens may have been a factor in his untimely demise.

Yet his fossil discoveries also opened up a whole new window on Antarctica's sub-tropical past.
Forests in the frost

Professor Jane Francis of the University of Leeds is an intrepid explorer who has followed in Scott's footsteps. She has spent 10 field seasons in Antarctica collecting fossil plants and received the Polar Medal from the Queen in 2002.

"I still find the idea that Antarctica was once forested absolutely mind-boggling", she told the BBC.

"We take it for granted that Antarctica has always been a frozen wilderness, but the ice caps only appeared relatively recently in geological history."

One of her most amazing fossil discoveries to date was made in the Transantarctic Mountains, not far from where Scott made his own finds.

She recalled: "We were high up on glaciated peaks when we found a sedimentary layer packed full of fragile leaves and twigs."

These fossils proved to be remains of stunted bushes of beech. At only three to five million years old, they were some of the last plants to have lived on the continent before the deep freeze set in.

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