Plants in Antarctica are changing at a more alarming rate than first anticipated. There is well documented greening in the Arctic and on the Antarctic peninsula as ice retreats exposing more land. These regions are amongst the most rapidly warming on the planet.
Warmer temperatures and increasing melt promote plant growth. Meanwhile on the continent, so far, there has been little evidence of warming so plant responses were expected to be slow and difficult to detect, until now.
Alarmingly after only 13 years monitoring plant ecosystems we observed significant changes in the moss beds near Australia’s Casey station in East Antarctica. We have recently shown that these lush moss beds of the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica are rapidly drying due to cooler, windier summers caused by ozone depletion and climate change.
We have developed advanced ways to analyse preserved climate records captured within these old-growth moss shoots establishing these miniature plants as accurate proxies to detect climate change in coastal East Antarctica. Our research has provided a history of the region's changing climate and these novel techniques can be used to determine sites in Antarctica where mosses are at risk of drying and dying.
Our results show for the first time that climate change and ozone depletion are drying East Antarctic moss beds and demonstrate that Antarctic communities are already being affected despite a relatively small change so far. How these plant communities fare in future depends on implementation of and compliance with the Montreal Protocol and Paris Climate Agreement.
Continued monitoring of these moss beds is important so that Antarctic Environmental Managers can protect these fascinating plant communities for the future.
Related United Nations Sustainable Development Goals:
9. Industry, innovation and infrastructure
13. Climate action
15. Life on land
Details of the Impact
RESEARCH OUTPUTS & IMPACT: We have recently published this research in Nature Climate Change  and it has been disseminated at key international conferences (Scientific Committee of Antarctic Research [SCAR] Open Science & Biology meetings), a UOW TEDx presentation (Robinson in 2016) and at several internal UOW seminar series (e.g. Summer Scholars, Early Career Research presentations). In addition, this work contributes to the required research on whether other vegetated sites in Antarctica are also at risk from climate change. This helps meet international obligations under the Antarctic treaty to protect terrestrial populations. Our work provides a more informed view of climate change impacts on Antarctic biodiversity. This will enable Australia and other treaty nations to better manage their obligations to protect biodiversity, as well as to inform best environmental management practice across the continent through the SCAR and the Committee for Environmental Protection (CEP) (see beneficiaries section for more information).
Our work in Antarctica continues to be of intense interest to the public, to primary school students and media and our research findings will provide a mechanism for highlighting the vulnerability of these key ecosystems and explaining the impacts of climate change to the community at large. Through media releases, an article in The Conversation, radio interviews, YouTube videos and online blogs, the team has reached national and international public audiences [2-4].
So far, like the tip of an iceberg, we have:
1. Built strong international links to deliver cost effective polar research including Australian, New Zealand and Chilean Antarctic programs.
2. Provided world-class, transdisciplinary research training and international experience for at least 2 students, a postdoc, and research assistant in a suite of key dating, biochemical, phenomic and spatial methodologies suitable for future polar, alpine and desert research.
3. Developed methods to identify the Antarctic terrestrial communities most at risk from climate change as well as which moss beds are most resilient, providing managers with data and tools to inform management to protect at risk areas. Translation of these results into SCAR Antarctic Near-shore and Terrestrial Observing System (ANTOS) methodologies.
4. Achieved endorsement of our methods at well renowned international conferences and through management agendas. Results are being considered by Antarctic programs as part of their management practices.
5. Made data widely available in an accessible form for stake holders. Continued inclusion of data in Australian State of the Environment Reports.
6. Provided career development opportunities for early and mid career researchers to advance their Antarctic research careers.
7. Enhanced public engagement through written articles for the general public and publicising our research.
8. Enabled findings to be incorporated into Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) and the United Nations Environment Programme Environmental Effects Assessment Panel (UNEP EEAP) reports.
- Members of the public who engaged with the outreach materials to gain a better understanding of how plants can live in Antarctica and preserve a climate record in their tissue (500,000)
- International politicians and privileged persons who visited and toured Antarctic Base Escudero and experienced the science hands-on (80)
- Incorporation and implementation in several reports (e.g. SoE, UNEP, ASPA management reports and plans will benefit Antarctic biodiversity (1)
- Professional development of two researchers and a digital artist in improving science communication media skills (3)
Approach to Impact
Summary of the approaches to impact
The dominant flora in maritime and continental Antarctica are mosses which due to their incredible resilience mechanisms can survive in the limited ice-free areas of these harsh environments. Although mosses can survive in the harshest of continents, they are still threatened by the effects of human induced processes, for example climate change and ozone depletion. Slight differences in temperature, water and other environmental drivers potentially have a large impact on biodiversity, health and distribution of plants. Changes in climate are occurring in Polar regions at an alarming rate and include shifts in temperature, precipitation, wind speed and diminishing stratospheric ozone, subsequently increasing the levels of damaging ultraviolet-B radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Consequently, this has resulted in terrestrial environments changing.
Our overall research question in this project is to investigate how Antarctic coastal climate is changing and how this affects terrestrial biodiversity. Understanding how climate change interacts with local conditions and affects Antarctic terrestrial communities requires knowledge of regions that are drying or getting wetter. Antarctic mosses are essential sentinels for the health of their whole community, including other biota (e.g. invertebrates, fungi, lichens and microbes). It is aimed at developing novel techniques that can be applied Antarctic-wide by international Antarctic programs to inform management and policy focusing on preserving the Antarctic environment in a time of change. The techniques could also be applied to understand the impacts of installed infrastructure (stations etc.) on nearby terrestrial.
Approach to Impact
BACKGROUND: The dominant flora in maritime and continental Antarctica are mosses which due to their incredible resilience mechanisms can survive in the limited ice-free areas of these harsh environments. Although mosses can survive in the harshest of continents, they are still threatened by the effects of human induced processes, for example climate change and ozone depletion. Slight differences in temperature, water and other environmental drivers potentially have a large impact on biodiversity, health and distribution of plants. Changes in climate are occurring in Polar regions at an alarming rate and include shifts in temperature, precipitation, wind speed and diminishing stratospheric ozone, subsequently increasing the levels of damaging ultraviolet-B radiation reaching the Earth's surface. Consequently, this has resulted in terrestrial environments changing.
Over 13 years (2000–2013) we observed significant changes in species composition within moist moss communities in East Antarctica. Although Antarctic mosses grow extremely slowly (about 1 mm/year) and can take weeks to respond to changing conditions in the field, we have shown that mosses are far more responsive to their immediate climate than anticipated. When we first started monitoring in the early 2000's the moss beds were dominated by the water-loving moss Schistidium antarctici, which is only found in Antarctica. As the area dries, two hardy global and dry-loving species have encroached on Schistidium’s turf, indicating a shift to a drying environment.
Additionally, these mosses also preserve a record of water availability in their tissue as they grow. Moss shoots grow incrementally from the base to the tip. Like tree rings, these remarkable tiny plants preserve a record of their environment in their cells and cell walls as they grow. Our research has shown that individual living moss shoots in the Windmill Islands are up to 500 years old and some species accurately preserve a record of their immediate water environments through stable isotopes. This research is especially important in Antarctic regions where meteorological records are sparse and of very limited duration.
Analysing cores of long, intact moss shoots and the climate records captured in their tissues revealed that 40% of the 18 dated moss cores indicated a drying trend over the recent decades; providing evidence of a rapidly drying coastal climate in the Windmill Islands region, East Antarctica.
1. Robinson et. al. (2018) Drying of East Antarctic terrestrial ecosystems provokes rapid community change. Nature Climate Change.
2. Waterman, Turnbull and Robinson (2018) https://theconversation.com/antarcticasmoss-forests-are-drying-and-dying-103751
3. Australian Academy of Science (2018) https://www.science.org.au/curious/earthenvironment/amazing-antarctic-moss
4. Robinson, Waterman & Netherwood (2017) https://youtu.be/LF4p3ng0HRQ