Global Warming

Climate change kills Antarctica’s ancient moss beds

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Emerging from the ice for a brief growing season every Antarctic summer, the lush green mosses of East Antarctica are finally succumbing to climate change.

That is according to a study of the small, ancient and hardy plants – carried out over more than a decade which revealed that vegetation in East Antarctica is changing rapidly in response to a drying climate.

“Visiting Antarctica, you expect to see icy, white landscapes,” said lead scientist Prof Sharon Robinson from the University of Wollongong, in Australia. “But in some areas there are lush, green moss beds that emerge from under the snow for a growing period of maybe six weeks.”

While West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula are some of the fastest warming places of the planet, East Antarctica has not yet experienced much climate warming, so the scientists did not expect to see much change in the vegetation there.

“After a pilot study in 2000, we set up monitoring in 2003. When we returned in 2008, all these green moss beds had turned dark red, indicating they were severely stressed. It was a dramatic change.

The red pigments are the sunscreen and drought stress protective pigments they produce to protect themselves – antioxidant and UV screening compounds.

Grey means they are dying.

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By dating the mosses, the researchers could tell they have been growing here for hundreds of years. As they grow, the mosses preserve a record of how dry or wet the environment is along their shoots – preserving a record of Antarctic coastal climate over the centuries.

[They might be only] 4-14 cm tall, but [the moss beds] are home to tiny animals and fungi and lichens and algal cells – think of them as a forest and at least 40% of it is suffering drought.

“The mosses are our sentinel for the whole ecosystem.”

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