Antarctica is an alien world in some ways – looking familiar, but with a sense of strangeness. As far as plants go, Antarctica is currently host to only around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, 250 types of lichens, around 700 known species of algae and only 3 flowering plants. However, things are changing now.

Scientists from the University of Exeter, UK studied moss and have found that the quantity of moss, and the rate of plant growth, has shot up in the past 50 years. It seems like Antarctica is turning green and with rising temperatures having a dramatic effect on the plant life. The same thing is already happening in the Arctic.

A moss bank on Green Island Photograph: Matt Amesbury

Much of Antarctica is covered in ice, but parts of its peninsula are instead blanketed in moss. Each year, more moss grows over the top of the previous season’s growth, providing a record of moss health over thousands of years. In the second half of the 20th century, the Antarctic Peninsula experienced rapid temperature increases, warming by about half a degree per decade. Moreover, in 2015 this part of continent experienced the highest temperature ever recorded – 17.5°C

People will think of Antarctica quite accurately as a very icy place, but our work shows that parts of it are green, and are likely to be getting greener. Even these relatively remote ecosystems, that people might think are nearly untouched by humankind, are showing the effects of human-induced climate change, said a study author Matthew Amesbury.

Cores drilled from three islands just off the Antarctic Peninsula reveal that the warming climate has spurred on biological activity. Photograph: Matt Amesbury

Researchers tested five moss bank cores from three sites and found major biological changes had occurred over the past 50 years. They noticed that the moss is able to take advantage of the nitrogen produced when the soil warms up and decomposes. Their further data indicate that plants and soils will change substantially even with only modest further warming.

These changes are important to track because as ice retreats and more moss and green vegetation appear, the biological functioning of the landscape will change along with its appearance. However, Antarctica has a long way to go before its appearance is radically transformed.