The mid-Cretaceous period was one of the warmest intervals of the past 140 million years 1–5, driven by atmospheric carbon dioxide levels of around 1,000 parts per million by volume 6. In the near absence of proximal geological records from south of the Antarctic Circle, it is disputed whether polar ice could exist under such environmental conditions. Here we use a sedimentary sequence recovered from the West Antarctic shelf—the southernmost Cretaceous record reported so far—and show that a temperate lowland rainforest environment existed at a palaeolatitude of about 82° S during the Turonian–Santonian age (92 to 83 million years ago). This record contains an intact 3-metre-long network of in situ fossil roots embedded in a mudstone matrix containing diverse pollen and spores. A climate model simulation shows that the reconstructed temperate climate at this high latitude requires a combination of both atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 1,120–1,680 parts per million by volume and a vegetated land surface without major Antarctic glaciation, highlighting the important cooling effect exerted by ice albedo under high levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide.