Ardley Island

Exploring Ardley Island.

Moss banks

Deep eroded moss bank on Elephant Island.

Why?                   

...are we interested in how climate has changed in the past, and specifically on the Antarctic Peninsula?   Here we provide some more detail on the background to the project and some of the other research and study that has taken place in the region, which puts our work into a broader context.

The Antarctic continent is an important part of the Earth system, both influencing and responding to global ocean and atmospheric circulation.  The Antarctic ice sheet plays a major role in sea-level change and currently holds the equivalent of 70m of global sea-level rise.  Monitoring change in the climate, cryosphere and biosphere of Antarctica is therefore a critical element in understanding and predicting future global change.  

Over the past 50 years, the climate over most of Antarctica has remained relatively stable, but the Antarctic Peninsula has experienced one of the highest rates of warming anywhere on Earth, with increases of 3°C since the 1950s and even higher rates for winter in some locations.  The rapid increase in temperature has been associated with decreased sea-ice extent, ice-shelf collapse, glacier retreat and increased ice flow rates and changes in ecosystems on land and sea.  However, the causes and context of the recent temperature changes are unclear, although it is thought that stratospheric ozone depletion and increasing greenhouse gases are both important.  Current global climate models do not capture the observed changes adequately at present.

A key question in understanding and attribution of Antarctic climate change is whether the recorded changes on the Peninsula are unusual compared with past natural climate variability.  However, this question cannot be addressed because the instrumental records are too short and existing proxy-climate records are not suitably located to be able to trace the spatial signature of change over time.  Our project will exploit moss banks as a new proxy-climate archive to test three key hypotheses:

  1. The recent temperature rise on the Antarctic Peninsula is unprecedented in the late Holocene.
  2. The spatial pattern of variability is similar to that which occurred during previous periods of climate change.
  3. Plant communities are responding to recent climate change by increases in growth rates and altered seasonal growth patterns.

Moss banks are ideal deposits for reconstructing climate change over the land surface of the Antarctic Peninsula because of their location in relation to recorded temperature changes, their age, and their attributes as archives.  The moss banks have accumulated peat over the past 5-6000 years at locations throughout the western Antarctic Peninsula.  They are formed of only one or two species, annual growth can be traced in the surface peats and preservation of moss remains is good. We will use multi-proxy indicators of past climate (stable isotopes, measures of decay, testate amoebae and moss morphology) to reconstruct climate variability from critical locations across the observed gradient in rate of temperature change between 69° and 61° S.  Although these techniques are tried and tested in more temperate regions of the world, they have not been employed in the Antarctic.  We carried out pilot studies on Signy Island which show that these proxies work well for the moss banks in the Antarctic so we know that our approach will produce valuable results. Our work will also involve improving our understanding of proxy-climate relationships by a programme of surface sampling and measurement.  The records will be calibrated using annually resolved records covering the period of instrumental observations.