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East Antarctica Survived Previous Carbon-Heavy Period, Says Study

Dec 16, 2015 07:42 PM EST
A field site in East Antarctica
Researchers recently found that a lake deposit from East Antarctica has been frozen for 14 million years, which likely means all the surrounding area was, too. The team was looking for information about how this part of the continent will react to climate change.
(Photo : University of Pennsylvania)

In the category of "things change; things never stay the same" there is the history of Antarctica, which was once lush with plants and lakes. Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania recently dated a deposit from one of those ancient lakes, in order to figure out how long the continent at the base of the Earth has been a cold desert of ice--and to get an idea of how Antarctica responded to previous climate change and might do in the near future, according to a release.

The team reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports, including the information that that lake's deposits have stayed frozen for at least the past 14 million years. Knowing this, they say, makes it likely that the surrounding region, the East Antarctic Ice Sheet (EAIS), has also remained intact.

The finding also supports the existing theory that the EAIS did not have significant melting even in the Pliocene, which took place 3 to 5 million years ago. At that time, carbon dioxide concentrations were fairly similar to what they are today.

"This gives us some hope that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet could be stable in today's and future climate conditions," Jane K. Willenbring at Penn said in the release. The team also included others at Penn, North Dakota State University and Purdue University.

Here's the difference between the West Antarctic Ice Sheet (WAIS) and the eastern one, which was in this study: The EAIS is 20 times larger. Already it's thought that the WAIS will likely melt as the climate changes, and that sea level will rise as a few meters as a result.

The study's finding that the EAIS has remained stable for so long gives hope that a huge collapse of the ice sheet might not be imminent. That said, "Even though the Pliocene conditions could be an analog for CO2 concentrations today, we've probably never experienced such a fast transition to warm temperatures as we're seeing right now," Willenbring said in the release.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

-Follow Catherine on Twitter @TreesWhales

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