A new study from Nasa has found that not only was ancient Antarctica warmer than its current-day existence, but it was also able to sustain vegetation.
Published online in Nature Geoscience, research has found that temperatures along the Antarctic coast 15-20 million years ago were about 11 degrees warmer than what they are today.
A team of scientists, led by Sarah Feakins of the University of Southern California, along with researchers from Nasa's Jet Propulsion Lab and the Louisiana State University (LSU), made the revelations after examining plant wax leaf remnants found in sediment core samples taken from below the Ross Ice Shelf.
Precipitation levels - rainfall, hail, snow and sleet - were also found to be higher than what they are today.
"The ultimate goal of the study was to better understand what the future of climate change may look like," Feakins said.
"This record shows us how much warmer and wetter it can get around the Antarctic Ice Sheet as the climate system heats up. This is some of the first evidence of just how much warmer it was."
Scientists began looking for evidence of high Antarctic temperatures after one of the researchers from LSU found traces of pollen and algae in sediment core samples taken from around Antarctica.
Fossils of actual plant-life could be hard to come by, said the researchers, because the movement of the ice sheets covering Antarctica ground away the evidence.
"Marine sediment cores are ideal to look for clues of past vegetation, as the fossils deposited are protected from ice sheet advances, but these are technically very difficult to acquire in the Antarctic and require international collaboration," LSU assistant professor Sophie Warny said.
The scientists used a model which was originally developed to analyse hydrogen isotope ratios in atmospheric water vapour data from Nasa's Aura spacecraft.
Jet Propulsion Lab scientist Jung-Eun Lee said the evidence pointed toward the coastlines of Antarctica being much warmer.
"When the planet heats up, the biggest changes are seen toward the poles.
"The southward movement of rain bands associated with a warmer climate in the high latitude southern hemisphere made the margins of Antarctica less like a polar desert, and more like a modern-day Iceland."
The scientific team found that the peak of the greening happened during the Miocene period - between 15.7 and 16.4 million years ago.
Dinosaurs became extinct about 64 million years ago.
The animals that roamed the earth during the Miocene epoch were "mostly modern-looking" - such as three-toed horses, deer, camel and certain species of apes. Human's didn't arrive until about 200,000 years ago.
Carbon Dioxide levels during the middle of the Miocene period reached levels of about 400-600 parts per milligram (ppm).
Latest figures for 2012 showed levels had climbed to 393ppm - the highest they've been in the past several million years.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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