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Story highlights

Moss banks are turning the western Antarctic Peninsula green, scientists say

The moss has grown rapidly over the past 50 years, tests show

(CNN) —  

Antarctica is home to ice, penguins and – thanks to climate change – rapidly increasing levels of moss, scientists say.

Moss banks, found across parts of the western Antarctic Peninsula, have grown dramatically over the past 50 years, according to a study published in the scientific journal Current Biology.

Moss growth has “increased by 4 or 5 times” in the past five decades, according to Tom Roland, one of the co-authors of the report.

Higher temperatures and less ice are “likely open up more land for the moss ecosystems to expand into,” Roland said, leading to the “‘greening’ of the Peninsula.”

“If you’d taken a photograph of these parts of the Peninsula 50 years ago it would have been a monochrome shot of ice,” Dominic Hodgson, another of the study’s co-authors, told CNN. “Nothing but glaciers.

“Today that photo would show extensive patches of green,” he noted.

Hodgson said the spreading moss is particularly surprising given the lack of light in the Peninsula.

The scientists, from Exeter University, Cambridge University, and the British Antarctic Survey, took five “cores” of moss from three separate sites on the Peninsula, allowing them to examine changes in growth across the last 150 years.

Threat from invasive species

The cold temperatures limited the moss’s decomposition, assisting their work.

They concluded that rising temperatures had contributed to major changes at all the sites.

“The consistency of the growth is striking,” said Hodgson. “The moss is right across the Peninsula.”

Moss growth opens the door to other plants potentially taking root in the Antarctic – and although a lush green continent might sound inviting, researchers are concerned.

“I don’t see too much of a problem with regional moss species,” said Hodgson “and there are also two grasses that have been found. But we need to be very careful about non-indigenous species of plants that risk being introduced.”

He says that has already happened in some of the sub-Antarctic islands, where non-indigenous species have been brought in accidentally on the clothing and equipment of researchers.

Scientists fear the Arctic may beat its southern equivalent when it comes to going green.

Dan Charman, another co-author of the paper, said there are parallel findings with Arctic shrub growth. “It’s likely that there will be faster rates of growth in areas of the world where low temperatures currently suppress plant growth,” he explained.

Hodgson said that while the group’s current research takes the moss timeline back 150 years, they plan to reach even further into the past.

“The next paper we’re working on is extending this record back into the next 4,000 to 5,000 years,” he said.