(CN) – A decade of significant changes in the snow-free valleys of Antarctica was triggered by a single season of unusually intense glacial melting in 2002, according to new research by the University of Colorado, Boulder.
Published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution on Monday, the findings suggest that a single, brief climate event can have a long-term impact on polar regions and can change the “overall trajectory of an ecosystem,” the university said in a statement.
Scientists studied the Antarctica’s McMurdo Dry Valleys, a snow-free and extreme desert region of Antarctica.
The National Science Foundation’s McMurdo Dry Valleys Long-Term Ecological Research has been studying the record of atmospheric and ecological data at a research site in McMurdo Dry Valleys for decades, the university said.
“Between 1987 and 2000, the McMurdo Dry Valleys region experienced a period of cooling, during which mean summer temperatures steadily declined while solar radiation gradually increased. The trend resulted in expected changes to most biological variables, including decreased streamflow and increased thickness of permanent ice covers on lakes,” the team said. “In 2002, however, the McMurdo Dry Valleys experienced an abnormally warm and sunny summer season, triggering the greatest amount of glacial meltwater since 1969.”
The project’s lead investigator Michael Gooseff called the glacial melt event in 2002 “a pivot point.” Scientists recorded changes in lakes, streams and soils in the region over the ensuing decade.
“A single extreme melt season led to an asynchronous pattern,” Gooseff said. “It may be the abrupt, short-lived events that occur in response to climate change that cause long-term changes to physical and biological aspects of polar ecosystems.”
According to the university, the findings in the study suggest Antarctic ecosystems are already undergoing a process of transformation and that climate change will continue to impact the region.