Antarctica: A Bog Frozen In Time


The Flow Country in northern Scotland (Image courtesy: Researcher, Jacquie Aitken)

Antarctica - the coldest, driest and windiest place on earth. You can't help but notice the media attention the region is getting with grave concerns over glacial ice melts and the devastating potential for sea levels rising across the globe. But what lies in store for this frozen tundra? Well, there just might be a clue in a boggy corner of Scotland. Once, there were no separate continents on earth, just an enormous landmass, Pangaea. From it Gondwanaland emerged, approx. 550 million years ago, as a super-continent of what we know today as South America, Africa, Arabia, Madagascar, India, Australia, the southern part of Britain and Antarctica. Meanwhile, Scotland was part of another continental giant, Laurentia. In time, southern Britain and Scotland would finally meet. Later, during the Permian Period the great mass extinction of animals and plants happened. No-one really knows why, but it is thought by scientists to be linked to a dramatic increase in carbon dioxide in the earth's atmosphere causing long periods of sunlight followed months of darkness. Amazingly, plants in Antarctica and Scotland adapted to these harsh conditions. Before examining the two regions further a short timeline of evolution comparing these land masses will be useful:

Approx. 300 million years ago (Permian) Scotland drifts ten to twenty degrees north of the equator and is covered by a dry and hot sandstone desert. Parts of Gondwanaland, including Antarctica, is still located at extreme latitudes and is covered by vegetation, due to a widespread warmer and drier climate.

Approx. 150 million years ago (Jurassic)

The Moray Firth basin in Scotland is flooded by shallow sea water. Plants begin to flourish and coal is formed. Gondwanaland begins to break up. At this time trees and other plant life existed on Antarctica. Fossils gathered by Scott’s Terra Nova expedition, and later explorers, revealed microorganisms and fungi inside wood.

Approx. 50 million years ago (Paleogene) Volcanic ash erupts along the west coast of Scotland and across from Iceland. Antarctica meanwhile develops a cooler temperate climate, not unlike Scotland today. A wide variety of new plants evolve to the Antarctic climate including the remains of 'mummified' mosses dating approx. 53 million years ago.

Approx. 23 – 2.5 million years ago (Neogene) Scotland experiences warm temperate conditions then it gradually cools bringing ice. It is still unclear when Antarctic vegetation died out, but it is evident that a vegetative cover existed in Antarctica until about 35 million years ago. However, the latest research suggests it continued until much more recently.

Approx. 10,000 years ago – present (Quaternary) At the end of the last Ice Age Scotland’s ice sheet cover gradually melts away. Approx. 6000 years ago peat begins to forms in Caithness and Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. This area is collectively known as The Flow Country. Government tax incentives in the 1970s and 1980s led to a big increase in commercial forest planting in The Flow Country. Fortunately, since the 1990’s conservation work has been ongoing to repair the damage done so that bog plants can begin to grow again. The current icy climate conditions in Antarctica doesn’t support much vegetation. The soil is poor due to sub-freezing conditions and a lack of moisture. The climatic trend towards warmer temperatures has accelerated the melting and shrinking of Antarctica’s ice masses.

Scotland was once covered in ancient Caledonian forests, which are now extinct. The Flow Country however was never part in this forest system. It was firmly rooted in Scotland’s peatlands and wetlands habitats, lying at the very top of the mainland Scotland. The Flow Country is widely considered to be the largest area of blanket bog in the world and is home to a rich variety of wildlife and breeding ground for many different plant species. Scotland’s peat soils cover more than 20% of the UK and The Flow Country covers approx. 200,000 hectares (part of a wider 400,000 hectares overall blanket bog). This type of bog only grows in cool places with plenty of rain. The plants that do grow here don’t rot away but build up in deep layers of peat. Peat soils have an organic layer at the surface of approx. 50cm. As it became cooler and wetter the last vestiges of tree growth on the peatland died out and were consumed by the peat bog.

Temperatures in the Antarctic interior are on average -50°C. The coast is much warmer with average temperatures on average −10°C, but it’s warming up fast! Temperatures recently hit an all time high and is predicted to warm by around 3°C this century. And, let’s not forget that the injection of cold water from melting glaciers causing currents to slow down in the Antarctic region affects the storage of heat and carbon dioxide. In combination, the two processes could potentially feed off each other to further accelerate climate change. Given the potential for peat-like habitats to exist, Antarctica and The Flow Country remarkably have a lot in common:

Mosses Antarctica has many organisms found in the oceans but as temperatures rise the land based species such as mosses and lichens could (under a less frozen but still cooler and wetter environment) will flourish. The flora of The Flow Country consists of an amazing amount of mosses, over 100 specimens. Antarctica by comparison has over 400 species of moss. Lack of sunlight is a problem for all plants, but the peatland enzymes have adapted incredibly well to survive in such conditions. It’s mosses that make the bogs so rich and diverse.

Rainforests Approx. 100 million years ago the earth was in the grip of an extreme Greenhouse Effect. As a result rainforests flourished in Scotland and Antarctica. However, since approx. 2000 BC no natural forests have existed in The Flow Country due to cooler and wetter conditions. If global warming continues unabated the return of these ancient forests could be possible for both regions.

Climate fluctuating rapidly The climate in The Flow Country following the last Ice Age fluctuated from being initially warm and relatively dry to a climate which became much wetter and colder. In Antarctica precipitation is low with approx. 200mm of annual rainfall. If global temperatures do rise significantly this could turn Antarctica into a wetland. Deep carbon storage

Bogs are a hugely important defence against climate change as a carbon store. In Antarctica carbon dioxide is growing steadily in the air above. Should Antarctica follow a similar path to The Flow Country it could develop its own carbon store; with plants like mosses developing into peatlands. If we consider the fact that Scotland’s peatlands store 25 times as much carbon as all the other vegetation in the UK, it can be seen how combative peatlands are to further climate change.

Ozone depletion The ozone hole above Antarctica pretty much covers the whole continent and is attributed to the human use of CFC’s. As it attempts to heal-up over the next few decades some areas will cool but this could effectually increase temperatures in other parts. Ozone depletion doesn’t directly affect global warming but its impacts on the lower atmosphere and upper stratosphere contribute greatly to the effects of Climate Change. The ozone layer above Scotland is thinning out as well. Should temperatures continue to rise significantly the peatlands will release its carbon store further reducing the ozone layer. The changing climate is the single greatest threat to our way of life. It is most prevalent in our forests, mountains, oceans and ice caps, but more often climate change will alter the intricate ecological balance that lets plants and soils grow and thrive. If we can keep global warming below the 2° C target, set by the Paris Climate Accord, reduce our fossil fuel emissions and commit to environmental protections, we may just be able to minimise the amount of damage that’s already been inflicted on Antarctica by 2070.

The Flow County in the far north of Scotland was formed by huge continents splitting apart giving rise to arid deserts and tropical rainforests. But its profound boggy landscape is the direct result of the last receding ice. From then came the cool and wet conditions that allowed certain plants to adapt and protect life.

At the end of the day all the research, science and guesstimates points towards the conclusion that the cosmos needs equilibrium. On earth, opposing forces create an order that is maintained most of the time. If the ‘cause’ of one force is humans doing their best to ruin their home, the ‘effect’ of the other force will be our planet turning to the enzymes in the smallest of things to readdress the balance. Much like The Flow Country is doing today, I sense that Antarctica will turn to the life giving power of its plants. As for the fossilised leaves that Scott and his team, over a century ago, found ‘beautifully traced’ in the hard Antarctic rock, they patiently wait to be awoken from their frozen slumber. If you enjoy reading this article please Like & Share #timetodevelop © 2019 Rob Aitken


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