From Leafy to Lifeless: Tropical Rainforest Once Covered Antarctica

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The Asahi Shimbun Premium / Getty Images

General view of Sor Rondane Mountains are seen on January 14, 2010 in Antarctica.

If you’d visited Antarctica 50 million years ago, you could have lounged beneath swaying palm trees and enjoyed balmy 68-degree weather.

Yes, seriously. Drilling off Antarctica’s east coast has revealed fossil pollens that came from a “near-tropical” rainforest that once covered the icy continent, AFP reports. Analysts estimate that the lush forest thrived throughout the Eocene period, some 34-56 million years ago. The new findings corroborate the 2010 discovery of turtle bones — which also indicated that Antarctica was once home to a much warmer, lusher climate.

(PHOTOS: Life Beneath Antarctic Ice)

After studying samples taken from seabed sediment, climate scientists stopped cold when they realized Antarctica’s summer temperatures once reached nearly 70 degrees Fahrenheit. Kevin Welsh, an Australian paleoclimatologist present on the 2010 expedition, told AFP that higher levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere facilitated the warmer conditions. He said the ice is expected to recede again by the end of the century — though it’s difficult to predict, “because that’s really controlled by people’s and governments’ actions.” Still, the findings are alarming enough to cause several scientists to suffer total meltdowns, as CO2 levels are rising rapidly and are showing few signs of slowing down.

The layer of ice covering eastern Antarctica is somewhere around two miles thick, AFP reports. If the continent ever reaches Eocene-era temperatures, melted ice could raise sea levels enough to produce devastating effects worldwide.

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