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Antarctic fossils paint a picture of a much warmer continent
Date:8/5/2008

National Science Foundation-funded scientists working in an ice-free region of Antarctica have discovered the last traces of tundra--in the form of fossilized plants and insects--on the interior of the southernmost continent before temperatures began a relentless drop millions of years ago.

An abrupt and dramatic climate cooling of 8 degrees Celsius, over a relatively brief period of geological time roughly 14 million years ago, forced the extinction of tundra plants and insects and tranformed the interior of Antarctica into a perpetual deep-freeze from which it has never emerged.

The international team of scientists headed by David Marchant, an earth scientist at Boston University and Allan Ashworth and Adam Lewis, geoscientists at North Dakota State University, combined evidence from glacial geology, paleoecology, dating of volcanic ashes and computer modeling, to report a major climate change centered on 14 million years ago. The collaboration resulted in a major advance in the understanding of Antarctica's climatic history.

NSF, in its role as the manager of the United States Antarctic Program, supported Ashworth's, Lewis', and Marchant's research as well as U.S. researchers from Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, Ohio State University and the University of Montana.

Their findings appear in the Aug. 4 edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"To me, the most interesting part of the whole story is that we've documented the timing and the magnitude of a tremendous change in Antarctic climate: the transition marks a shift from warm, temperate glaciers with patches of fringing tundra to today's cold-polar glaciers set within in a barren polar desert," said Marchant. "The contrast couldn't be more striking. It is like comparing Tierra del Fuego today with the surface of Mars--and this transition took place over a geologically short interval of roughly 200,000 years."

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Contact: Peter West
pwest@nsf.gov
703-292-7761
National Science Foundation
Source:Eurekalert  

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