Rapid change in East Antarctic terrestrial vegetation in response to regional drying


East Antarctica has shown little evidence of warming to date1,2,3 with no coherent picture of how climate change is affecting vegetation4,5,6. In stark contrast, the Antarctic Peninsula experienced some of the most rapid warming on the planet at the end of the last century2,3,7,8 causing changes to the growth and distribution of plants9,10,11. Here, we show that vegetation in the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica is changing rapidly in response to a drying climate. This drying trend is evident across the region, as demonstrated by changes in isotopic signatures measured along moss shoots12,13, moss community composition and declining health, as well as long-term observations of lake salinity14 and weather. The regional drying is possibly due to the more positive Southern Annular Mode in recent decades. The more positive Southern Annular Mode is a consequence of Antarctic ozone depletion and increased greenhouse gases, and causes strong westerly winds to circulate closer to the continent, maintaining colder temperatures in East Antarctica despite the increasing global average15,16,17,18. Colder summers in this region probably result in reduced snow melt and increased aridity. We demonstrate that rapid vegetation change is occurring in East Antarctica and that its mosses provide potentially important proxies for monitoring coastal climate change.

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Fig. 1: Changes in East Antarctic moss communities.
Fig. 2: Community composition at two sites in the Windmill Islands, East Antarctica, sampled over six summer seasons between 2000 and 2013.
Fig. 3: Change in moss health between 2003 and 2013 at two East Antarctic sites.
Fig. 4: Rate of change in moisture availability in East Antarctic mosses since 1960.
Fig. 5: Summer (December to February) SAM and meteorological observations for the Windmill Islands since 1961.

Data availability

Datasets are publicly available from the Australian Antarctic Data Centre (AADC) at https://doi.org/10.4225/15/59c999a4c2145.


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The authors wish to thank D. Bergstrom, Z. Malenovský, A. Nydahl, J. Dunn, A. Lucieer and other Australian National Antarctic Research Expedition expeditioners for assistance in the field, A. Netherwood for production of Fig. 1, and B. Raymond and A. Constable for providing feedback on the manuscript. Funding was provided by the Australian Research Council (DP110101714 and DP180100113), Antarctic Science Grants 1313, 3129, 3042 and 4046, and Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering grants 05142P and 06155. We acknowledge financial support from the Australian Government for the Centre for Accelerator Science at ANSTO through the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy and the University of Wollongong’s Global Challenges Program as part of the Sustaining Coastal and Marine Zones challenge. J.W., L.J.C., J.B.-A., M.J.W. and D.H.K. were supported by Australian Postgraduate Awards/Research Training Program scholarships. M.J.W. also received an Australian Institute of Nuclear Science and Engineering postgraduate award (grant ALNSTU2110).

Author information




S.A.R., D.H.K., J.B.-A., M.J.W., J.W., J.D.T., E.R.-C. and L.J.C. conceived the experiments. J.B.-A., J.W., J.D.T., S.A.R., R.E.M., E.R.-C. and L.J.C. performed the fieldwork. D.H.K. performed the image analysis. D.H.K., J.B.-A., J.W., J.D.T., T.B. and K.M. processed the moss microsamples. L.J.C., S.A.R., J.B.-A. and M.J.W. identified samples to species level. M.J.W., J.B.-A., L.J.C., L.A.B. and Q.H. performed the dating and isotope analysis. M.B.A., D.H.K., M.J.W., J.B.-A. and Q.H. analysed the data. S.A.R., M.B.A., M.J.W., D.H.K., J.B.-A., J.W., J.D.T., R.E.M. and Q.H. co-wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sharon A. Robinson.

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Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary tables S1–S2, Supplementary figures 1–3, Supplementary references


R2OpenBUGS Bayesian model used by the R script (Fig2_script.txt) to estimate the change in relative abundance of three moss species and moribund (dead or dying) moss over time


The relative abundance of each species in each quadrat and each year was modelled in R using the R2OpenBUGS Bayesian modelling package (see Fig2_Model.txt) and this R script (Fig2_script.txt)

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Robinson, S.A., King, D.H., Bramley-Alves, J. et al. Rapid change in East Antarctic terrestrial vegetation in response to regional drying. Nature Clim Change 8, 879–884 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41558-018-0280-0

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