December is summer in Antarctica, but on the mountaintops where a team of scientists is studying plants from one of the warmest periods in Earth’s history, daily high temperatures average about minus-30 degrees.
You read that correctly. Scientists, many from the University of Kansas, are collecting evidence of warm weather plants in a climate so cold it wouldn’t register on a household thermometer.
That’s because Antarctica holds some of the world’s largest deposits of plant fossils from the Permian and Triassic period. Temperatures during the Permian were far colder than during the Triassic, so plants that adapted through the mass extinction in between could hold clues to how life survives climate change, said Carla Harper, a National Science Foundation postdoctoral fellow in paleobotany at KU.
“That’s exactly what we’re going through today,” she said. “If we can see how those plants adapted, it might give us clues to how plants on earth, in general, adapt to climate change.”
Antarctica may sound like a miserable place to search for rocks, but Harper, who collected fossils in Antarctica on a similar trip in 2014 and stayed in Kansas this year, said she disagrees. She described the trip as “a blast” and “a dream.”
“I loved it and I wish I could go back,” she said, noting that the journey does take some adjusting. “It’s obviously winter here, but then you get to New Zealand where it’s summertime and you’re wearing shorts. Then it’s off to Antarctica where it’s worse than full-blown winter. It’s a lot.”
At the team’s Shackleton base camp, temperatures are a more tolerable 10 to 20 degrees, Harper said. It’s no warmer than a balmy 35 degrees at McMurdo Station, where helicopters and gear are stored.
“It’s considered warmer,” Harper said of the Shackleton camp, built in a valley.
Back to the rocks
The team has been in Antarctica since November and will return in mid-January. Led by Rudolph “Rudy” Serbet, the collections manager in paleobotany at KU’s Biodiversity Institute and Natural History Museum, the group includes researchers from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee and was funded with a National Science Foundation grant. They’ve collected more than 3,000 pounds of material to be analyzed this spring, Harper said. Many of those fossils could be new species.
″(Serbet) was super excited, because at one location they found lots of plants they’ve never seen before,” she said. “It’s pretty phenomenal. That’s one of the best things about our job — you can make new discoveries.”
Though the team has collected a lot of samples, finding fossils in the coveted Permian/Triassic border is difficult because such rocks are rare in most parts of the world, she said, but Antarctic deposits, especially around the receding Shackleton Glacier, remain undisturbed. The continent also offers better compression fossils, which show the outline of the plant and a type of fossilized peat, like fossilized wood, that gives scientists an understanding of the plant’s structure.
The samples will likely arrive at KU, the country’s largest repository for Antarctica plant fossils, sometime in April.