The mid-Cretaceous period was one of the warmest intervals of the past 140 million years1,2,3,4,5, driven by atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of around 1,000 parts per million by volume6. In the near absence of proximal geological records from south of the Antarctic Circle, it is disputed whether polar ice could exist under such environmental conditions. Here we use a sedimentary sequence recovered from the West Antarctic shelf—the southernmost Cretaceous record reported so far—and show that a temperate lowland rainforest environment existed at a palaeolatitude of about 82° S during the Turonian–Santonian age (92 to 83 million years ago). This record contains an intact 3-metre-long network of in situ fossil roots embedded in a mudstone matrix containing diverse pollen and spores. A climate model simulation shows that the reconstructed temperate climate at this high latitude requires a combination of both atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 1,120–1,680 parts per million by volume and a vegetated land surface without major Antarctic glaciation, highlighting the important cooling effect exerted by ice albedo under high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.
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The standard model code of the ‘Community Earth System Models’ (COSMOS) version COSMOS-landveg r2413 (2009) is available upon request from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology (Reinhard.Budich@mpimet.mpg.de). Analytical scripts are available via PANGAEA at https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.910179).
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We thank the captain and crew of RV Polarstern Expedition PS104, as well as the MARUM-MeBo70 team for their support; S. Wiebe, R. Fröhlking-Teichert, V. Schumacher, N. Lensch, M. Arevalo, M. Seebeck and H. Grobe for their help on board and in the lab, respectively; the Klinikum Bremen-Mitte (A.-J. Lemke and C. Tiemann, Gesundheit Nord Bremen) for providing facilities for computed core tomographies and M. Köhler (MKfactory, Stahnsdorf, Germany) for preparing the thin sections; and J. McKay (University of Leeds, UK) for creating and painting the Late Cretaceous West Antarctic palaeoenvironment based on reconstructions presented here. The operation of MARUM-MeBo70 was funded by the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) through its Research Program PACES II Topic 3 and grant no. AWI_PS104_001, the MARUM Center for Marine Environmental Sciences, the British Antarctic Survey through its Polar Science for Planet Earth programme and the Natural Environmental Research Council-funded UK IODP programme. J.P.K, G.K., K.G., J.M. G.U.-N., O.E., C.G., T.R. and R.D. were funded by the AWI PACES II programme. J.P.K. and J.M. were also funded through the Helmholtz Association (PD-201 and VH-NG-1101). UK IODP funded the participation of T.v.d.F., P.S.P. and S.M.B. in expedition PS104. J.T. was funded through the Cluster of Excellence “The Ocean Floor – Earth’s Uncharted Interface” at the University of Bremen. Y.N. was funded by Lancaster University, UK.
The authors declare no competing interests.
Peer review information Nature thanks Dietmar Muller, Anne-Marie Tosolini and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.
Publisher’s note Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.
Extended data figures and tables
a, Tera–Wasserburg diagram showing apatite (red; 9.9 mbsf) and zircon (blue; 26.7 mbsf) U–Pb data. The red bar at the upper array intercept for Eocene apatite is the range of crystalline basement 207Pbc/206Pbc values reported by (ref. 104) for West Antarctica, which anchor the apatite age calculation. b, PCA plot showing trace-element data and single-grain ages (in Myr) for AWI-35 (9.9 mbsf) apatite, and lithological fields derived from a bedrock apatite reference library104. Eocene grains (labelled in red) are chemically and chronologically distinct from other detrital apatite in the same sample. Data point error ellipses are 2σ.
Percentages of the most abundant pollen and spores and their total counts in cores 9R and 10R at site PS104_20-2 are shown.
a, Cyathidites australis. b, Osmundacidites wellmanii. c, Ruffordiaspora australiensis. d, Ruffordiaspora ludbrookiae. e, Cycadopites follicularis. f, Microcachryidites antarcticus. g, Phyllocladidites mawsonii. h, Podocarpidites major. i, Trichotomosulcites hemisphaerius. j, Trichotomosulcites subgranulatus. k, Taxodiaceaepollenites hiatus. l, Equisetosporites sp. m, Nyssapollenites chathamicus. n, Peninsulapollis gillii. o, Proteacidites subpalisadus. Scale bars, 10 μm.
Presence of HGs at 27.03–27.04 mbsf at site PS104_20-2 (core 9R) and river or lake surface water temperature (SWT) estimates from the HG-based molecular palaeothermometer (HTI30).
The sections are taken from a fossil root fragment between 29.34 and 29.43 mbsf in core 10R at site PS104_20-2. a, Overview scan of root fragment with indicated locations of detailed microscopic images b–e. White arrows indicate the locations of preserved parenchyma storage cells, including potential aerenchyma gas exchange cells (d). The scale bar in d applies to b–e.
a, Pristane/n-C17 versus phytane/n-C18 to infer organic matter type during sediment deposition (after refs. 37,38). b, CPI (left) and pristane/phytane (Pr/Ph; right) ratios. The CPI points to a low maturity and land plant origin of the organic matter (CPI > 1) deposited in an aquatic environment (Pr/Ph < 2) and a peat swamp environment (Pr/Ph > 2), respectively.
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Klages, J.P., Salzmann, U., Bickert, T. et al. Temperate rainforests near the South Pole during peak Cretaceous warmth. Nature 580, 81–86 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2148-5
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