By Casey Frye, CCNN Writer
Antarctica is one of the coldest places on Earth, and it was even more frosty during past ice ages – periods of time where Earth’s temperature dropped and thick sheets of ice covered almost all of the land. While animals like birds and seals fled to warmer areas during the last ice age 20,000 years ago, other organisms such as plants and insects were stuck and left to survive in the frigid cold.
How did they manage to endure such harsh weather patterns while others went extinct? According to new research, it seems like volcanoes provided warm relief.
It all has to do with geothermal energy – the heat radiating out of the ground from deep in the Earth. Areas around volcanoes are especially sprinkled with geothermal energy, which kept surrounding land ice-free. Additionally, steam rising up through the Earth’s surface created caves inside the ice sheets that were tens of degrees warmer than the frigid temperatures outside. These features were enough to keep organisms such as plants, worms, and mites alive through the ice ages.
Then, when the Earth warmed and glaciers began to retreat, the different critters spread out across the continent. This explains not only how creatures fended off the last ice age, but also why some species can only be found in Antartica.
In fact, researchers decided to put their theory to the test and sample geothermal areas in Antarctica today. They found that the regions closest to volcanoes contain a bunch of different types of organisms, especially plants!