The Reporter
Issue 493, 27 October 2003
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... and the ends of the Earth


Earth sciencist Dr Jane Francis is about to make her seventh trip to the Antarctic, in search of confirmation of a new theory about the continent’s history. The US-led expedition is searching for more examples of controversial fossils, found high in mountains just 500km from the South Pole, which prove the Antarctic ice cap is much younger and less stable than previously thought.

“So far the tiniest things have been found,” said Dr Francis. “Two million year-old tiny twigs and leaves, a fish tooth, the leg of a weevil and the top of a fly pupae case. These indicate that at the time the ice had melted enough to support tundra-like conditions. We’re hoping to find a lot more fossils to back up that theory.”

Scientists believed the ice spread over Antarctica 12 million years ago, and since then has been fairly stable. If the latest expedition can prove the ice cap is younger and has responded to climate changes in the past, it could mean that global warming will have a more dramatic effect than anticipated. Any significant melting of the ice will cause sea levels to rise, affect ocean structure and flows and speed up the process of global warming.

Dr Francis will stay in Antarctica for three months, with up to six weeks spent in the isolated mountains beyond the Beardmore glacier. She’ll return to Leeds in January to begin work on what she hopes will be an extensive range of fossils discovered in the field.


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