Imagine taking tropical vacations to Antarctica. While that might seem like a stretch, new studies reveal that around 52 million years ago, palm trees were growing along the edge of the now ice-covered Antarctica.

Antarctica. Credit: Jennifer Pickens/Flickr

On Antarctica’s eastern coast researchers drilled a kilometer deep into the ocean floor and found layers of sediment containing pollen grains from palm trees that are relatives of modern baobab and macadamia trees. One of the members of the team, Dr. James Bendle from the University of Glasgow, tells Planet Earth Online, “In the sediments, we found fossilized pollen representing two distinct environments with different climatic conditions — a lowland, warm rainforest dominated by tree ferns, palm trees, baobab trees and a cooler mountainous region dominated by beech trees and conifers.”

Palm trees.
Palm trees. Credit: Amanda Richards/Flickr

The study suggests that palm trees thrived in Antarctica in a time when the temperature in the winter exceeded 50 degrees Fahrenheit and temperature in the summer got up to almost 80 degrees. Additional evidence of the warm temperatures comes from analysis of additional organic compounds that were produced by soil bacteria populating the soils along the Antarctic coast. The details of past warming periods and greenhouse conditions give insight into the increasing effects CO2 could have on our planet today and hundreds of years from now.

The samples come from the early Eocene period, ranging from around 34-56 million years ago, when CO2 levels in the atmosphere were more than twice as high as they are today. During the Eocene period CO2 levels are estimated to be around 990 parts per million (ppm), and today, they are estimated at 395 ppm. Of course, 34 million years ago, there were no humans experiencing these conditions. Although these extreme levels of CO2 will not be reached relatively soon, it is possible that if we continue to burn fossil fuels at the current same rate, they could be reached by the end of the century.

So what exactly do these findings say about the future? Kevin Walsh, a scientist from the 2010 expedition that uncovered these findings, says to Agence France-Presse, “It’s difficult to say because that’s really controlled by people’s and governments’ actions. It really depends on how emissions go in the future.” Though the future is not completely clear, it is apparent that CO2 levels will continue to rise, ice will continue to melt and we’ll witness phenomena not seen since before our species inhabited Earth.