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Southern Plants Travel North

Newswise - Palm trees in Pennsylvania? Magnolias in Minnesota? The migration of subtropical plants to northern climates may happen if future global warming patterns follow the shift that took place in the past.

According to an article in the journal Science, fossils of southern plants found in cold climates provide evidence that plants changed drastically during a period of sudden global warming 55 million years ago?will it happen again? Biologist Jonathan Bloch says, "It indicates that should we have a period of rapid global warming on that scale today, we might expect very dramatic changes to the biota of the planet, not just the mammals and other vertebrates, but forests also completely changing."

Scientists have known there was significant turnover in mammals during this rapid period of global warming, in which temperatures rose by as much as ten degrees in 10,000 years?a relatively short time period in geologic time. Global warming brought mammals into new areas by allowing them to emigrate across northern land bridges. This was the period in which the ancestors of the horse, pig, camel and hippo showed up in northern climates. This period of global warming lasted for 80,000-100,000 years.

Until now, we had no clue as to what happened to plants. Bloch says, "It was very puzzling because it looked like there was nothing going on with plants, which was rather strange and disconcerting." But now paleontologist Scott Wing has discovered fossil leaves and pollen alongside fossilized mammals in rocks that were deposited during this period. Bloch says, "Amazingly, these plants came from what would have been more tropical environments."

What changed the weather then? According to Bloch, the warming was caused by a gigantic release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere that was comparable to the atmospheric effects expected from human burning of fossil fuels. He says,"You can't predict the future, but there has been a time in the past where we had similar type of conditions, and we might look to that experience."

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