Large blooms of tiny marine plants called phytoplankton are flourishing in areas exposed by the recent and rapid melting of ice shelves and glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula.

This remarkable colonisation is having a beneficial impact on climate change. The blooms absorb carbon and as they die, phytoplankton sinks to the sea-bed where it can store it for millennia.

Scientists from British Antarctic Survey (BAS) estimate that this new natural 'sink' is taking an estimated 3.5 million tonnes of carbon from the ocean and atmosphere each year.

"Although this is a small amount of carbon compared to global emissions of greenhouse gases, it is nevertheless an important discovery. It shows nature's ability to thrive in the face of adversity. We need to factor this natural carbon absorption into our calculations and models to predict future climate change," Lloyd Peck, professor from BAS, who led their study, says.

Peck and his colleagues compared records of coastal glacial retreat with records of the amount of chlorophyll (green plant pigment essential for photosynthesis) in the ocean.

They found that over the past 50 years, melting ice has opened up at least 24,000 sq km of new open water (as big as Wales) - and this has been colonised by carbon-absorbing phytoplankton, said a BAS release.

The study authors said this new bloom is the second largest factor acting against climate change so far discovered on earth. The largest is new forest growth on land in the Arctic.

These findings were published in Global Change Biology.