If you turned to an artist and asked them to paint a scene from an Antarctic voyage, you’ll likely be given the image of a desolate, windswept landscape of the whitest white. The coast will be swathed in vast ice fields, dotted by colonies of various wildlife as they shelter in the snow beneath a bright blue sky.
However, against all odds, there is plant life beyond simple algae and moss in this empty place. Let’s examine this in a bit more detail.
An introduction to Antarctic flora
It’s true that you’ll mostly see snow and ice during a tour of the Antarctic Peninsula, but especially during summer, there is more to be found. According to the British Antarctic Survey, about 1 per cent of the continent is free from ice enough to support flora, and though you won’t be photographing any trees or shrubs, you might glimpse the two species of flowering plant to be found (which we’ll get to in a moment).
But how did plants even get here?
If you read our related post ‘How was Antarctica formed?’, you’ll find out about the massive forces of continental drift, and how the South Pole used to be much further north. It’s likely Antarctica developed plant life during this past, which can be seen in the fossils of trees researchers have found beneath the thick snow.
It’s true that you’ll mostly see snow and ice during a tour of the Antarctic Peninsula, but especially during summer, there is more to be found.
Flowering plants in modern Antarctica
But as we mentioned, it’s not just fossils here – two species of flowering plant exist, which keen-eyed Antarctic explorers can find hiding among the rocky shores of the Peninsula.
The first is the Antarctic pearlwort, which grows to a mere 5 centimetres tall, with pleasant yellow-white buds. The other is the perennial Antarctic hair grass, which is a tussocky flower with long, thin stems. Both of these rely on the wind for pollination, as there are no small insects to help them out. What’s more impressive about these plants is of course their adaptation to the cold. Each, according to a paper published by the University of Canterbury, can still photosynthesise at freezing temperatures.
Based on current reports, we might be able to see more of these species in the future, too. Global Warming, reports a study published in journal Nature Climate Change, is helping them become increasingly widespread. In particular, an increased supply of nitrogen has led to hair grass booming since the mid-1900s.
So when you are investigating the Antarctic Peninsula on your next cruise, ask your guide to point out these hardy plants to appreciate something that grows even when nothing else will.