Temperate rainforests near the South Pole during peak Cretaceous warmth


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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Fig. 1: Setting of MARUM-MeBo70 drill site PS104_20-2 on the ASE shelf.
Fig. 2: Multi-proxy parameter reconstruction of cores 9R and 10R at site PS104_20-2.
Fig. 3: Reconstruction of the West Antarctic Turonian–Santonian temperate rainforest.
Fig. 4: Modern and mid-Cretaceous CO2 sensitivity runs.

Data availability

All data are available online via PANGAEA at https://doi.org/10.1594/PANGAEA.906092.

Code availability

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.

Author information





J.P.K. led the study and together with U.S., T. Bickert, C.-D.H., K.G. and G.K., conceived the idea for the study and wrote the manuscript. J.P.K, T. Bickert, C.-D.H., S.M.B., J.A.S., K.G., T. Freudenthal, T.v.d.F., P.S.P., W.E., O.E., H.P. and T.R. collected the cores. J.P.K, C.-D.H., T. Bickert and G.K. undertook the sedimentological and U.S. and S.M.B. the palynological analyses. T. Bickert and G.K. conducted the XRF scanning and processing of the cores. G.K. carried out the grain-size and bulk mineralogical analyses. J.T. led the CT scanning, processing and visualization. J.M. performed the biomarker analyses (apolar hydrocarbons) together with T. Bauersachs (HG palaeothermometry). T. Frederichs conducted the palaeomagnetic measurements. J.E.F., G.N., G.K. and J.P.K. investigated the thin sections. W.E. analysed the clay mineral assemblages and T.v.d.F. and P.S.P. measured bulk sediment Nd and Sr isotope compositions. K.G., R.D.L. and T. Frederichs helped determine the palaeolatitude of the drill site. G.L. and I.N. undertook the modelling with COSMOS. M.Z., C.S., C.M. and D.C. provided the U–Pb age constraints. U.S. and F.S. performed the bioclimatic analyses. J.P.K., T.B., C.-D.H., S.M.B., T. Frederichs, W.E., J.A.S., O.E.,, H.P., T.R. and R.D. helped with sampling and scanning the cores. K.G., G.U.-N. and R.D.L. undertook the seismic pre-site survey. All members of the Expedition PS104 Science Team helped with pre-site survey investigations, core recovery, onboard analyses and/or shore-based measurements. K.G., G.K., C.-D.H., G.U.-N., T. Bickert and R.D.L. acquired funding and proposed and planned RV Polarstern expedition PS104. All co-authors commented on the manuscript and provided input to its final version.

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Correspondence to Johann P. Klages.

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Extended data figures and tables

Extended Data Fig. 1 Tera–Wasserburg and PCA plots for U–Pb ages (in ±Ma).

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.

Extended Data Fig. 2 Pollen abundance diagram.

Percentages of the most abundant pollen and spores and their total counts in cores 9R and 10R at site PS104_20-2 are shown.

Extended Data Fig. 3 Photomicrographs of selected pollen and spores.

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.

Extended Data Fig. 4 HG palaeothermometry.

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).

Extended Data Fig. 5 Example microscopic images from thin sections.

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 be. White arrows indicate the locations of preserved parenchyma storage cells, including potential aerenchyma gas exchange cells (d). The scale bar in d applies to be.

Extended Data Fig. 6 Biomarker presence.

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.

Extended Data Table 1 Percentages of the most abundant pollen and spore taxa
Extended Data Table 2 Key pollen taxa and the NLRs used to derive quantitative climate estimates
Extended Data Table 3 Full list of identified pollen and spore taxa

Supplementary information

Video 1

3D animation video of the sediment record. Animated video from X-ray computed tomography (CT) data of cores PS104_20-2 9R and 10R.

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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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