It’s hard to imagine that the frozen wasteland known as Antarctica could have once supported plant life of any kind, but a new NASA study has found that 15 million to 20 million years ago, the continent was warm enough to grow vegetation, including trees, along its coast.
NASA scientists found that during that time, temperatures could reach as high as 45 degrees Fahrenheit and that precipitation levels were also several times higher than today, creating a suitable environment for vegetation. Considering the average summer temperature is only 20 degrees Fahrenheit, that seems downright balmy.
Skeptics of the human influence on climate change will no doubt point to this study as proof that global warming has occurred long before people ever walked the earth. However, the point of the study, according to researchers, was to offer insight into what a warmer world might look like, whether caused by humans or otherwise.
“The ultimate goal of the study was to better understand what the future of climate change may look like,” said study participant Sarah Feakins, an assistant professor of Earth sciences at the University of Southern California, Los Angeles, Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “Just as history has a lot to teach us about the future, so does past climate. 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.”
And if the planet continues to heat up, Antarctica will become quite a different place from what we know today.
“When the planet heats up, the biggest changes are seen toward the poles,” NASA scientist Jung-Eun Lee said. “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 present-day Iceland.”
Let the Antarctica party tours begin.