As Antarctica warms up, its native plants are thriving. Researchers on Signy Island in the South Orkney Islands noticed that these plants are growing faster, sparking concerns about shifts in the region's ecosystem.
Flowers typically bring a splash of color and the hope of spring, but not in Antarctica.
Only two flowering plant species, Antarctic hair grass, and Antarctic pearlwort, are found on the icy continent.
There aren't any trees or shrubs, and the few plants that do exist are confined to the South Orkney Islands, the South Shetland Islands, and along the western Antarctic Peninsula because there hasn't historically been much space for them to develop due to the area's predominance in ice and snow.
However, scientists have discovered that plants on the continent are growing more swiftly as global temperatures continue to increase and Antarctic ice continues to melt.
On Signy Island, in the South Orkney Islands, from 2009 to 2019, Nicoletta Cannone and her colleagues from the University of Insubria in Italy evaluated the growth of two indigenous plants in Antarctica at several locations.
When they compared the findings to surveys conducted 50 years prior, they discovered that as the environment warmed, the plants had not only gotten more numerous at the sites but had also grown more quickly each year.
The results were astounding, with Antarctic hair grass expanding more between 2009 and 2019 than it had in the previous 50 years, beginning in 1960.
Even more quickly, the Antarctic pearlwort expanded five times more throughout the same time period.
As he spoke with New Scientist, Peter Convey, a researcher with the British Antarctic Survey, spoke on the effects of rapid expansion saying: “The most novel feature of this is not the idea that something is growing faster. It’s that we think we’re starting to see what is almost like a step change or a tipping point.”
At the Scottish Association for Marine Science in Oban, UK, Matthew Davey added: "Accelerated expansion is now clearly evident in the region”.
“This research gives us the first comprehensive data set showing how fast and how dense the plant community may expand,” he said.
The relationship between plant growth and climate change is obvious, but the researchers admitted that a variety of other factors, such as a diminishing fur seal population, could also be at play.
The continent's natural plants might be outgrown by invading species as a result of rising temperatures, which could threaten the biodiversity and local ecosystems.
“If we extrapolate what we observed on Signy Island to other sites in Antarctica, a similar process can also occur,” Cannone explained.
“This means that the Antarctic landscape and biodiversity could change rapidly.”
While the connection between climate change and enhanced plant growth is evident, scientists also acknowledged the influence of other contributing factors.
Among these factors, an intriguing possibility emerged - shifts in the fur seal population could be influencing the environment. As temperatures continue to rise, invasive species could potentially outcompete the native Antarctic flora, posing a significant threat to the region's biodiversity and fragile ecosystems.
This could herald rapid changes in the continent's landscape and biodiversity. The remarkable truth is that Antarctica, once perceived as a frozen and unchanging wilderness, is now adapting to the evolving climate, where even its hardiest native plants are responding to the shifting environmental cues.