The North Pole was once as warm as the Mediterranean with waving palm trees and temperatures a balmy 23C (74F), scientists reveal this week. But the Arctic would have been no tropical holiday paradise.
Watery swamps were ruled by the alligator’s early ancestors and giant, blood-thirsty mosquitoes. Meanwhile the rest of the world was suffering raging temperatures as global warming went haywire, a surprising study shows.
The glimpse of life on our planet 55 million years ago was uncovered by an expedition to the Arctic by international scientists. They drilled deep into the seabed to dig up core samples left over from the past. The samples showed that the polar region was much warmer than had previously been thought, the science journal Nature reports.
One of the explorers, Professor Mark Pagani, of Yale University, Connecticut, said: “It probably was a tropical paradise but the mosquitoes were probably the size of your head.” He said there would have been dense sequoia trees and cypress trees like in Florida ring the Arctic Ocean.
Scientists believe that millions of years ago the Earth experienced an extended period of natural global warming. But around 55 million years ago, a sudden supercharged spike of carbon dioxide made the planet like a greenhouse and temepratures soared.
No one is sure what caused the climate chaos. But it could have been due to massive releases of methane from the ocean, many volcanic eruptions or continent-sized forest fires. Many experts had previously thought that, while the rest of the world got really hot, the poles remained comfortably cooler, at around 11C (52F). But the new research shows that the polar average was closer to 23C (74F).
Fellow expedition member Kathryn Moran, an oceanographer at the University of Rhode Island, said: “It’s the first time we’ve looked at the Arctic. And, man, it was a big surprise to us. It’s a new look to how the Earth can respond to these peaks in carbon dioxide.” The scientists say that their findings act as a warning about the effects that happen when climate change is allowed to run out of control.
Earth may have been saved from its oven-like state 55 millions ago by a simple fern called the Azolla. The plant is thought to have sucked up massive amounts of carbon dioxide helping turn the Earth from a hothouse to an icehouse over around a million years.