Fancy a holiday in tropical Antarctica?

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by a Newsnet reporter

Well actually, you would have had to book your trip about 55 million years ago.  There’s always a catch, isn’t there?  Not to worry, there’s hope yet according to researchers at the International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Sciences which took place in Edinburgh.  The increasing CO2 levels in the atmosphere might just make it possible, in about 50 to 60 years time, for some people alive today to book that holiday to the tropics of Antarctica.

Ice core drilling studies show that the south pole was once a tropical paradise, nothing like it is at present, currently the coldest place on Earth, its mountains covered in a massive two-mile thick ice cap.  Antarctica boasts the bitterest freezing cold winds, week-long white blizzards, giant glaciers, icy lost desolation and the coldest temperatures ever recorded on the face of the Earth – producing the most inhospitable environment in the world to humans and to most anything else.

Prof Jane Francis, of Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment, speaking at the International Symposium on Antarctic Earth Sciences in Edinburgh said, geological drilling indicates Antarctica was once: “a green beautiful place, lots of furry mammals including possums and beavers lived there. The weather was tropical, it is only in the recent geological past that it got so cold.”

The research has worrying implications for the future.  Drill-core data combined with satellite surveys show the whole world underwent temperature rises directly proportional to fluctuations in levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.

Professor Stephen Pekar, of City University of New York said: “Fifty five million years ago, there were more than 1,000 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  That heated the world enough to melt all its ice caps.  Sea levels would have been almost 200ft higher than today.”

Today, there are approximately 390ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere, a rise from preindustrial levels of 280ppm, generated by CO2 emissions from power stations, factories and vehicles, raising global temperatures by about 1°C.  At the present rate of increase – around 2ppm a year – it will take 300 years to reach the Antarctican tropical paradise conditions 1,000ppm.

Frighteningly, according to Pekar, we don’t require to reach 1000ppm of CO2 to see Antarctica transform: “By the time we get to 500ppm we will start to see major melting of the ice caps.”

At 2ppm of CO2, 500ppm will be reached in only 55 years time and it is unknown if the poles may melt completely at a lower atmospheric CO2 level than the 1000ppm CO2 levels found by the researchers.

Researchers at the symposium revealed sediments containing the pollen of tropical plants were discovered 1 kilometre under the seabed of Wilkes Land in east Antarctica by the International Ocean Drilling Programme : “We have found the same kind of material, from the same period, in the Arctic as well.  These show the poles were just as warm as lands at the equator.  Carbon dioxide turned the planet into a uniformly warm hothouse.”

It is hypothesised that movements of tectonic plates caused CO2 release from carbonate-rich rocks and sediments heating the world up ; this  CO2 was gradually absorbed by a range of natural processes cooling the world down again.

Prof. Henk Brinkhus of Utrecht University, speaking at the symposium : “We now know that over geological time, carbon dioxide levels and atmospheric temperatures are interlinked.  When the former rises, the latter goes up in its wake. These changes took place over millions of years. However, we are now making similar changes in decades and have little chance to adjust. There are bad days ahead for the planet.”

Professor Stephen Pekar: “When we look at the Antarctic’s past, we get a vision of what our planet might be like in a couple of hundred years: a hot, drowned world.”

 

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