Researchers at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) - the body which discovered the ozone hole over the continent a decade ago - will shortly report on the 'greening of Antarctica', as the ice recedes, summers lengthen, and the climate warms up.
A paper to be published later this year will say that a flowering grass is now 25 times more common than it was 30 years ago. Other research has found that new species are appearing in the area as long-frozen seeds are freed from the melting ice.
Last week the official Intergovernmental Panel on Climatic Change met in Maastricht, the Netherlands, to complete a report warning that the world's climate is still 'at serious risk'.
BAS scientist Ron Lewis Smith, author of the forthcoming paper on the spreading grass, has little doubt that his research describes an early sign of change. 'This is part of the global warming situation,' he said yesterday.
The study documents a 'rapid increase' in the continent's only two flowering plants at sites 600 miles apart, Faraday on Galindez Island and Signy Island in the South Orkneys. The plants were counted in 1964. When they were counted again in 1990, the scientists found that there had been an 'explosion' in their numbers.
Thirty years ago, there were just 700 Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia antarctica) plants on Galindez and the neighbouring islands. In 1990, the scientists counted 17,500, a 25-fold increase. More than four times as many areas of the islands now support the grass. The other plant, the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) increased from about 60 plants in 1964 to over 380.
Dr Lewis Smith says that similar increases have been found at Signy Island, and that the plants are being spread by a warmer climate. Average temperatures have increased by one degree centigrade over the past 25 years, and the Antarctic summer has lengthened by 50 per cent since the 1970s.
Over the past few years two species previously unknown in Antarctica have appeared in soil uncovered by retreating glaciers, he says. He believes that the spores of the plants, both forms of Polytrichum, were blown there on the winds and had lain frozen in the ice, possibly for centuries.
'The greening of Antarctica is a slow but significant process,' he says. 'This is a sign of regional warming, which is part of what is happening to the climate globally.'