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Carpet of lush flora once ringed icy Antarctica

Plant life thrived about 15 million to 20 million years ago, new research finds

The few plants that live in Antarctica today are hardy hangers-on, growing just a few weeks out of the year and surviving poor soil, lack of rain and very little sunlight. But long ago, some parts of Antarctica were almost lush.

New research finds that between about 15 million and 20 million years ago, plant life thrived on the coasts of the southernmost continent. Ancient pollen samples suggest that the landscape was a bit like today's Chilean Andes: grassy tundra dotted with small trees.

This vegetated period peaked during the middle Miocene, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels were around 400 to 600 parts per million. (Today, driven by fossil fuel use, atmospheric carbon dioxide has climbed to 393 parts per million.)

As a result, global temperatures warmed.

Antarctica followed suit. During this period, summer temperatures on the continent were 20 degrees Fahrenheit (11 degrees Celsius) warmer than today, researchers reported Sunday in the journal Nature Geoscience.

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