The future of Antarctica

Antarctica is the only continent on Earth where humans haven't set up permanent homes. It's an icy desert that was once a subtropical forest, teeming with life. But scientists believe that the cold land could bloom again.

Though most people think of Antarctica as a frozen pile of ice sheets, the place wasn't always that way. 200 million years ago, the continent drifted in warm, subtropical waters. Even when continental drift pushed it to its current position at the South Pole, Antarctica was full of plant and animal life resembling what you'd find in the Canadian tundra.

The future of Antarctica

But about 15 million years ago, the planet underwent a fairly dramatic climate change, cooling off by about 8 degrees C over 200 thousand years - which is pretty quick in geological time. The once-subtropical continent became a frozen wasteland, developed ice sheets that are more than a mile thick in some areas, and was populated only by a few hardy species like penguins and tardigrades. But now the climate may change dramatically in Antarctica, spurred by warming in the central tropical Pacific that has melted part of the continent's ice shelves already.

The future of Antarctica

In a paper published today in Nature Geoscience, a group of scientists say that we may start to see a rapid warming in Western Antarctica - which is the region where warmer winds enter the rest of the continent, so these weather changes could sweep across the entire South Pole region. Once again, Antarctica would be a land of impossibly tall mountain ranges and beautiful valley lakes. Of course, the warming would also cause the planet's water levels to rise as all the continent's ice sheets melted and found their way into the Pacific.

By analyzing historical data since the 1970s of Earth's temperatures and high-atmosphere winds, the researchers identified high, warm winds caused by the warming central Pacific. These winds flow down and over Antarctica, spurring a warming trend. And the trend probably won't be stopping any time soon. Write the scientists:

Warming in the central tropical Pacific is a common characteristic of general circulation model responses to scenarios of future greenhouse gas radiative forcing.

In other words, models of wind and temperature circulation on the planet show that greenhouse gases are going to force more warm winds down south.

Just remember - when you visit the South Pole tropics in a few million years, wear your synthetic ozone shell!

Read the full scientific paper on Antarctic warming in Nature Geoscience.

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