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The natural world. Looking pretty for 3.5b years.

Colors of Antarctica

Colors of Antarctica

Author: Hugh Bollinger/Monday, May 16, 2016/Categories: natural history, space science, sustainability, environment, climate change

            Antarctic Peninsula, red = up to 3 feet/day, blue = less than 1 inch/day  (credit: ESA)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has released a color-coded map of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ice on the long peninsula is moving and in some places very fast.

According to the ESA, the new map was constructed using radar image pairs captured by their Copernicus environmental satellite that measured ice dynamics twelve days apart between December 2014 and March 2016. It shows the speed ice is flowing on the peninsula in varying colors relating to the speed with red representing the fastest movement. The map traces a network of channels where ice moves down from the high mountains to the coast and spreads out on the open ocean as floating ice shelves. The Larsen ice sheet (eastern red section) partically collapsed in 2002 and NASA estimates it is in the process of disintegrating completely, perhaps by the end of this decade. A video using satellite imagery shows the process.

The mountainous peninsula extends from the central Antarctic ice sheet and comprises the northernmost arm of Antarctica. The chain of mountains crosses the Antarctic circle reaching towards South America's Patagonia region. The Drakes Passage, separating the two continents, is known to have some of the worst weather anywhere on Earth. However, the peninsula is where the only plants exist on Antarctica including several species of moss, a turf-grass, and the yellow-flowering Antarctic pearlwort, a cushion plant.

  Antarctic Mosses (credit: Australian Antarctic station)                 Antarctic Pearlwort (credit: Wikipedia )

Plants are a good indicator for the rate of climate change as they physiologically respond to changes in atmospheric CO2 levels quickly. More field studies are needed as the level of CO2 produced from buring fossil fuels has now passed 400ppm in Antarctica. It lagged the same recorded level previously recorded in the northern hemisphere and which is considered a significant carbon milestone. A project led by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) shows that the entire Earth's atmosphere has now crossed the 400ppm threshold. Airborne CO2 sensor measurements were taken this winter to understand the Southern Ocean's role in global climate and recorded the passed milestone.

The Antarctic Peninsula continues to warm as one of the fastest locations in the southern hemisphere. The chances that additional plants will begin appearing there from seeds brought by the winds, birds, or even on tourists boots is likely high. The new maps showing the colors of Antarctica may need to include more green in not too distant future.

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