‘Striking’ spread of two Antarctic flowering plants is a climate warning

(ORDO NEWS) — Flowering plants in the Antarctic region are booming, scientists say, indicating the ongoing impact of climate change on the continent. The findings suggest that we may have reached a tipping point in this fragile and remote ecosystem.

A new plant expansion study focused on two flowering plants that are native to Antarctica – Deschampsia antarctica and Colobanthus quitensis. The researchers measured the growth and distribution of these plants on the small subantarctic island of Signy from 2009 to 2019.

Both plants grew faster each year as temperatures rose, which the research team attributes to warmer summer air and a decline in plant-trampling seal populations, which may be related to food availability and sea conditions.

“We hypothesize that the striking distribution of these plants is due mainly to warmer summer air and release from seal disturbance,” the researchers write in their published paper.

Between 1960 and 2011, the air warmed up by 0.02 degrees Celsius annually, but after four years of cooling, it is rapidly increasing by 0.25 degrees per year.

The growth rate of D. antarctica between 1960 and 2009 was nearly 21 percent per decade. From 2009 to 2018, this increased to 28 percent per decade. Meanwhile, over the same periods, growth in C. quitensis ranged from just under 7 percent per decade to 154 percent.

While all this may be good news for D. antarctica and C. quitensis, it will not benefit the region as a whole: Warmer temperatures could allow invasive species to gain a foothold in the ecosystem, which could lead to “irreversible loss of biodiversity and changes in these fragile and unique ecosystems,” the authors write.

A similar expansion of the plan has been documented in the mountains of Europe, but this study shows “the first evidence of an accelerated ecosystem response to climate warming in Antarctica,” the authors note. It turns out Antarctica may not be as resilient to the climate crisis as we thought.

“This hypothesis is consistent with observations in the Northern Hemisphere, particularly in Europe, where land-use change is correlated with vegetation change, but, as here, climate warming has been a major driver of these responses,” the researchers write.

The researchers speculate that what is happening on Signy Island is likely happening elsewhere, although further research will be needed to know for sure. More research is also needed on the possible future impacts of proliferation.

Given a variety of factors, from the spread of plants to seasonal rainfall and melting ice, it’s hard to predict exactly where Antarctica is heading, but it’s clear that it’s a very finely balanced environment that’s under serious threat.

“Our results support the hypothesis that future warming will cause significant changes in these fragile Antarctic ecosystems,” the researchers wrote.

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