The Wollongong researcher responsible for the first evidence showing that climate change is rapidly affecting East Antarctic vegetation is “sad and surprised”.
“When you are doing science in such an amazing place and you’ve got these plants that have survived there probably hundreds or thousands of years, yet now we can see they are being affected quite fast, is pretty sad,” Senior Professor Sharon Robinson said.
“It’s also very surprising because I really thought I’d be retired and it would be my students who would find something in 50 years time.”
Prof Robinson from UOW’s Centre for Sustainable Ecosystem Solutions was the lead researcher of the landmark 13-year study published in Nature Climate Change on Tuesday.
She said the broader message from the study, which found evidence of a rapidly drying climate, was that nowhere on Earth is spared the consequences of climate change.
“We think of Antarctica as a pristine wilderness but climate change and ozone depletion have a huge impact there. What we do in the rest of the globe affects the plants and animals in Antarctica,” she said.
The study saw researchers from UOW, the Australian Antarctic Division and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, monitor old-growth moss beds near Australia’s Casey Station.
The lush green moss bed at Casey, known as the “Daintree of the Antarctic”, are the largest plant ecosystem in East Antarctica.
“We were really surprised when we saw how fast it was changing,” Prof Robinson said.
“After a pilot study in 2000 we set up monitoring in 2003. When we returned in 2008, all these green moss beds had turned dark red, indicating they were severely stressed. It was a dramatic change.
“That’s really worrying.”
UOW research associate and co-author Dr Melinda Waterman said they also found evidence of drying in the moss shoots themselves, which, like tree rings, preserve a record of past climate.
“Some of the mosses are hundreds of years old so they give us a really good climate record for this part of Antarctica,” Dr Waterman said.
“Of the 18 mosses we sampled, most showed evidence of drying and 40 per cent showed evidence of significant drying. Only three didn’t show drying.”
Data from Bureau of Meteorology stations in East Antarctica show it has become colder and windier over the last 50 to 60 years.
“It’s the first evidence the East Antarctica communities have been affected by climate change and ozone depletion,” Prof Robinson said.
Supported by UOW’s Global Challenges Program, the researchers will continue to monitor the impacts of climate change on Antarctica.