Antarctica: Scientists find area where no life exists
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Although mostly covered in ice and snow today, the planet’s southernmost continent once resembled the coniferous forests of northwest America. Approximately 75 million years ago, when the dinosaurs were still some nine million years away from being wiped out, Antarctica’s James Ross Island was covered in lush conifers, ferns, and a diverse range of plant and animal wildlife. This prehistoric landscape was marred by devastating fires, according to a new study published in the journal Polar Research.
An international team of researchers led by the Federal University of Pernambuco in Brazil has found fossilised evidence of these forests being burned to a crisp.
The scientists travelled to James Ross Island where between 2015 and 2016 they collected a number of small, unusual fossils.
The fossils appeared to contain charcoal-like residue, hinting at the continent’s fiery past.
The discovery adds new evidence to the theory that Antarctica was frequented by wildfires during the Campanian age (84 to 72 million years ago).
Evidence of this theory was highlighted six years ago in the journal Palaeogeography, Palaeoclimatology, Palaeoecology.
At the time, the study’s authors found “macroscopic charcoal remains” that has been preserved over the millennia by volcanic ash.
They argued Antarctica’s wildfires were triggered by volcanic activity, caused by the movement of tectonic plates.
The study read: “The charred wood remains were identified as belonging to conifers, which were important components of the Antarctic palaeoflora during the Cretaceous.
“A review of the data published thus far regarding palaeo-wildfires in the Southern Hemisphere confirms that the charcoal remains analysed here are the first to verify the occurrence of palaeo-wildfires in the upper Campanian levels of the West Antarctic Peninsula.”
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The latest study has exposed the very first evidence of so-called paleo-fires on James Ross Island.
Flaviana Jorge de Lima, a paleobiologist at Pernambuco and the study’s lead author, said: “This discovery expands the knowledge about the occurrence of vegetation fires during the Cretaceous, showing that such episodes were more common than previously imagined.”
Today, this large island sits near the northeast tip of the Antarctic Peninsula and was connected to the Antarctic mainland by an ice shelf until 1995.
The fossils discovered by the team are tiny but their impact is monumental.
The charcoal fragments only measure about 0.7 by 1.5 inches (19 by 38mm) across.
Electron microscope analysis revealed them to be the charred remains of gymnosperms – plants that reproduce using exposed seeds.
This family of plants includes conifers and cycads, as well Ginko trees.
More specifically, the fossils likely came from a family of coniferous trees known as Araucariaceae.
The study’s authors wrote: “Antarctica had intense volcanic activity caused by tectonics during the Cretaceous, as suggested by the presence of fossil remains in strata related to ash falls.
“It is plausible that volcanic activity ignited the paleo-wildfire that created the charcoal reported here.”
Although the Cretaceous was known for numerous forest fires, evidence of these has so far been mostly found in the Northern Hemisphere.
During this period (145 million to 66 million years ago), the planet’s continents were breaking apart from the Gondwana supercontinent.
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