Antarctica, witness of planet’s past


The ice layer that covers the Antarctica is one of the best existing records to understand how the climate behaved in the past in this planet. Photo: Marc Oliva.

The ice layer that covers the Antarctica is one of the best existing records to understand how the climate behaved in the past in this planet. Photo: Marc Oliva.

The Antarctica “hides the footprints of the Earth’s past”. This is explained in the book Past Antarctica (Elsevier), published by the geographer and UB Ramón y Cajal researcher Marc Oliva. This work is an effort to rebuild the past of the “coldest, driest and most remote” continent of our planet synthetizing the existing knowledge in different disciplines (such as geography, climatology, biology and history).

Geographer Marc Oliva, who publishes this book together with Jesús Ruiz Fernández, from the University of Oviedo, notes that “the ice layer that covers the Antarctica is one of the best existing records to understand how the climate behaved in the past in this planet”. However, despite the scientific interest, “the physical isolation of the Arctic continent, the strong climate conditions and the reduced number of research stations make research hard in order to find out how the Antarctica was in the past”.

The Antarctic continent, as we know it today, was born as a consequence of the plate tectonics: when the isthmus of the land that connected it to South America split, a migration from the Antarctica to the South Pole started, parallel to a large scale cooling. This is how an ice mass started to accumulate, which is still existent nowadays.

The book gathers contributions from different perspectives on the evolution the continent has undergone, and it organizes the research in four sections: past climate variability, geological and geomorphological dynamics, biodiversity and ecological changes in the past, and human expeditions and recent climate tendency.

Marc Oliva says they worked on this group because “we detected that, sometimes, the different special fields are not interrelated much often”. For instance, geomorphologists study the areas where the ice has disappeared, and they also study the time when this happened. However, the fact that this area melted 10,000 or 25,000 years ago, has consequences for the biologists: if there is ice, there are no plant species, “and knowing the age at which the ice split enables researchers to understand why there are certain plant communities”. In short, “the book results from our will to tighten bonds, interactions between disciplines that study the past in the ice continent to make a better prediction of the future”.

Regarding this future, Olive notes that “international reports present important changes, especially regarding the western Antarctica and the Antarctic peninsula, where warming could increase the merge of the glaciers and the ice surface”. This could make humans to use the lack of ice and exploit the hidden resources of the continent, “despite the firm will of the signing countries of the Antarctic Treaty on the continent being a sanctuary for science and peace”.

Marc Oliva is the principal researcher in the Research Group Antarctic Arctic and Alpine Environments (ANTALP) of the UB. He has taken part in eight expeditions in the Antarctica and four in the Arctic. He has also carried out research in several mountain ranges of the planet to analyse the processes of the Earth’s surface that take place in cold climate environments. Its research focuses on current and past geomorphological processes, as well as past climates in the polar regions and high mountains.

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