Displaying items by tag: Antarctic plants
We know that Antarctica is the frozen planet and we tend to think that its animals and plants must also be well adapted to cold conditions. As a result we probably assume that they do better in cold conditions than other plants or animals. But is that really true?
Working with mosses, the main plants, in Antarctica I have often wondered this? I know they are amazing at surviving the cold. Try putting your salad vegetables in the freezer and you quickly see that many plants are very bad at tolerating freezing. Some plants are even damaged by chilling temperatures above zero (fridge temperatures). But we can collect Antarctic mosses, dry them and put them in the freezer and then take them out after a few months, or more than 50 years, and they will grow again! So yes, they can tolerate freezing conditions - they put up with about 8 months a year in nearly complete darkness and temperatures as low as -40˚C
But that doesn’t mean they like it cold. Are they just able to tolerate cold but would be more productive if summers were warmer? If so, can they warm themselves up above those usually chilly summer air temperatures of 1-2 40˚C? Are they really in Antarctica because they can survive the cold winters while other plants can’t? In which case its more about lack of competition from flowering plants than actually being truly cold loving.
Climate change is affecting Antarctica and minimally destructive long-term monitoring of its unique ecosystems is vital to detect biodiversity trends, and to understand how change is affecting these communities. Back in the 1990s when I first visited Antarctic the tradies at Casey would ask “So what is happening to the moss?” given that they knew we were studying it. At the time we didn’t know, because long term monitoring was not something that anyone was interested in funding. But it bugged Dr Jane Wasley & I that we didn’t know the answer. So, when State of the Environment Reporting started, we agreed to try and come up with a monitoring system that would answer the question.
In late February there were reports of record-breaking high temperatures from scientists working on the Antarctic Peninsula. At the time Diana King and I were in NSW in Australia having spent the summer experiencing smoke pollution from the Australian bushfires along with extremely hot days. Our colleague Dana Bergstrom was sending us reports of rain at Davis Station in East Antarctica. Given that almost all precipitation falls as snow in Antarctica, these were strange reports. Our Chilean colleagues, Marisol Pizarro Rojas and Gustavo Zúñiga were also reporting that there was no snow around the Escudero research station on King George Island and that every day was perfect for field work, a most a worrying development. There is always bad weather sometime in Antarctica!
Saturday (5thJan) we are back on King George Island, at the Argentinian Carlini Base. Carlini is the only station in Potter Cove and is named after a scientist Alejandro Ricardo Carlini. The station sits beneath the impressive Tres Hermanos mountain and the nearby glaciers are retreating rapidly exposing new rocky areas.
The weather is overcast, cloudy with wet snow. Young elephant seals haul out amongst the chunks of glacial ice that are washed up along the beach.
We tour the Science labs, the Dive sheds and also are given refreshments in the station mess. There is a compression chamber in the Dive facility and a technician to operate it in case the divers run into problems.
The scientists on station came from many countries and tell us about the current science research programs that are running on and around the station including a lot of marine biology and hydrology. It is great to see another base in action and to hear first-hand from the scientists about their research. It is also wonderful that so many people on station are prepared to give up their Saturday to entertain visitors.
The projects include remediation projects aimed at understanding how plants and microbes can clean up contaminated soil around Antarctic stations. Many sites in Antarctica are contaminated with oil and other chemicals as a result of historic waste practices and some of my students have investigated how tolerant Antarctic mosses and alga are to oil and if Macquarie Island plants can help promote soil clean ups.
I was particularly excited to see so much moss and lichen around Carlini, as well as the two vascular plants that grow on the peninsula region of Antarctica, the grass Deschampsia antarctica and the pearlwort, Colobanthus quitensis. The lichens and mosses have even started to colonise the whale bones that remain from historic whaling in the region.