February 01, 1991

Article at Reuters

Forests once flourished in Antarctica, fossils indicate

Artist’s concept of a rainforest in what’s now Antarctica

By Wilson da Silva

SYDNEY – Fossils found on an icy mountain range near the South Pole indicate the world was warmer three million years ago and Antarctica was partly covered with temperate forests, scientists said on Friday.

The fossils of leaves, found on the bleak Beardmore Glacier some 400 km (250 miles) from the South Pole, indicate forests of beech trees once flourished on the continent.

“This really is astounding,” geologist Barrie McKelvey of Australia’s University of New England said. “It indicates a major warming of the world then, and that (Antarctica) was some 15 to 20 degrees (Celsius; 59-68 Fahrenheit) warmer than it is now.”

The fossils from deciduous southern beech were found 1,800 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level on December 25 last year.

The discovery challenges current theory that maintains that Antarctica has not changed since a continuous ice sheet crept over the continent 15 million years ago, covering 97 per cent of its surface and obliterating most native life.

It suggests the world warmed again between two and three million years ago, rolling back the ice sheet and allowing forests to grow. Antarctica is about the size of the United States and Canada combined.

“It looks as if the leaves fell where they were found, probably into a pond or a quiet stream backwater, and then were quickly covered,” Professor David Harwood of the University of Nebraska in the United States said in a statement released here.

“It seems very possible that the warming and subsequent cooling occurred on a global scale,” Harwood said.

Antarctica probably looked much like Alaska does today, with large wooded areas and passing glaciers, McKelvey said. Ice probably covered only half or one third of the continent then, he said.

The leaf fossils closely resemble those of trees on the southern islands of Tasmania in Australia and Tierra del Fuego in South America, said a statement released by the scientists.