Stereotype would have us convinced that Antarctica is a white mass of snow 365 days a year. But summer on the Antarctic Peninsula allows a little bit of green to sprout and add beautiful contrast to what we thought we knew of the region.
And climate change is aiding this progress, for one plant in particular.
“We think of the Antarctic as a land of snow and ice,” explains Dr Paul Hill of Bangor University, lead author of a paper published in the new journal Nature Climate Change.
“But, in summer on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the islands surrounding the frozen centre of the continent, the snow melts and many areas become green with mosses and two species of native flowering plant. Recently, as global temperatures have increased, and Antarctic summers have become longer and warmer, one of these flowering plants, Antarctic Hairgrass (Deschampsia antarctica), has become increasingly widespread.”
A team of scientists from the UK and Australia were led by Professor Davey Jones of Bangor University’s School of the Environment, Natural Resources and Geography to discover the secret of why the Antarctic Hairgrass is beginning to thrive.
They found that the Antarctic Hairgrass uses its roots to access nitrogen that has usually been locked away in the colder conditions.
“Plants need nitrogen to grow successfully,” explains Jones. “In coastal Antarctica, most of the nitrogen is locked in organic matter in the soil, which has been slow to decompose in the cold conditions. This is now becoming more available as temperatures increase.”
The Antarctic Hairgrass is using its root system to more effective reach this newly available source of nitrogen much more efficiently than has previously been seen in plants. As a result, the Antarctic Hairgrass is doing much better than the mosses in the same region. Professor Jones concedes though that there won’t be a need for lawnmowers anytime soon.
These results also have wider implications for the sustainable management of agricultural and natural ecosystems in other parts of the world.