The 280 million-year-old forest in the South Pole

(CNN)Antarctica as we know it is a frosty wilderness covered in thick compacted ice.

But a recent scientific discovery suggests that the vast white continent was home to leafy forests, some 280 million years ago.
During the last Antarctic summer, geologist Erik Gulbranson and a team of polar scientists chanced upon fossils from the oldest polar forest found on the continent -- before the first dinosaurs walked the Earth.
Now the team is braving the land of ice once more to uncover clues as to how forests once flourished there.
    Erik Gulbranson on site in Antarctica.
    Antarctica was much warmer 280 million years ago than it is today. Back then, it was still part of Gondwana, the Southern Hemisphere supercontinent that incorporated present-day Africa, South America, Arabia, India and Australia.
    According to Gulbranson the southernmost part of the continent would have been carpeted in seed ferns extending up to 40 meters tall.
    These trees would have been able to survive approximately four to five months of absolute darkness, followed by four to five months of continuous light.
    However, their rings reveal a high frequency of very bad years of growth, says Gulbranson, suggesting it wasn't an easy environment for these trees to live in.
    Fossil trees are somewhat inconspicuous and therefore difficult to find.

    Finding trees in Antarctica

    Fossil hunting in Antarctica involves combing parts of the Transantarctic Mountains that extend across the continent, dividing it into East and West Antarctica.
    But traversing glaciers and snowfields is no easy feat in negative temperatures and fierce winds upwards of 40 miles per hour. Roped together with climbing harnesses and kitted out with steel spikes on their hiking boots, Gulbranson and his team probe for cracks in the ice to avoid falling down deadly crevasses.
    "It's very apparent from day one that as a human being you're not supposed to be there," Gulbranson tells CNN. "You might as well be on the moon or the bottom of the ocean."
    Once the team reaches the very top of the mountains the hunt begins, scouring for clues among the rocks.
    "Finding [tree] fossils is particularly challenging because they are somewhat inconspicuous, they blend into the rocks that they're found in," says Gulbranson.
    Gulbranson, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, has been hunting Antarctic fossils for seven years, with a team of specialist scientists and mountaineers. They discovered fossils of 13 trees