From storybook snowcapped mountains to the poles, Earth’s cold spots make for an interesting experience. Ski antics and monster sightings aside, ice fields can produce things that scientists have never seen before, clues about history, and even far-reaching disasters that are born in the Arctic.
Tourists travel to remote places to witness fantastic events, while icebergs and shelves behave in ways that scientists cannot explain. But the frozen depths can also hold some of the most terrifying discoveries and disappearances in the natural world.
Today the world’s largest desert, Antarctica’s frozen fields kept a piece of important history. When it was still attached to the mega-continent called Gondwana, Antarctica was green and humid.
Then, millions of years ago, a mysterious extinction swept 90 percent of all species off the planet. Known as the Permian extinction, scientists suspect a volcano is to blame but do not know the details of the disaster’s progression.
When five new fossil forests were recently discovered in Antarctica, they were unlike any other found before. What little scientists know about the Permian smash comes from marine fossils. But for the first time, the event could be studied on land. The forests grew before , during, and after the catastrophe.
The discovery is new, unearthed late in 2017, and requires more study to understand how these ecosystems weathered the great extinction. In time, the gnarly wonders may help explain what drove the extinction on land and settle the debate on how long it lasted. Current views swing between 15 million and 20,000 years.