Antarctica’s lack of precipitation makes it a desert by definition. Despite the challenging climatic conditions, plant life on Antarctica still manages to thrive — although it looks significantly different from a traditional countryside environment. The dark, frozen conditions make photosynthesis almost impossible for all but the most robust plant species. Because much of the landmass is blanketed in a permanent layer of ice and snow, there is very little exposed ground for Antarctica’s plants to take root. In fact, a mere 1 percent of the continent is currently home to any form of plant life, but this is changing.
How did plants get to Antarctica?
You might wonder how an environment that lacks sunlight, has nutrition-poor soil, and is subjected to freezing temperatures can spawn a plant-life ecosystem. The answer is, it didn’t. When Antarctica split from the Gondwana supercontinent 200 million years ago and drifted south, thousands of plants species died out as the continent cooled. Happily, a small minority of Antarctica’s plants adapted to the extreme conditions and thrived. Fossil remains of plants discovered primarily in the western Antarctic Peninsula tell of a past when the landscape was lush and green.
Vascular plants in Antarctica
Only two species of vascular plants are found on the entire continent: Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort. What sets these apart from other plants, like mosses, lichens, and fungi, is their ability to photosynthesize through their vascular system. Antarctic hair grass has a short growth spurt in the summer and is incredibly durable. It can withstand the trampling of the seal and penguin colonies that regularly traverse the area. Antarctic pearlwort, which is most commonly found in rocky areas, can grow up to an impressive 5 centimeters in height and produces small yellow flowers, making it quite unique to the region.
Other types of plant life in Antarctica
Antarctica is home to an abundance of lichens, bryophytes, algae, and fungi. These organisms don’t have roots and consequently don’t require the complex intake of nutrients like other plants to survive. Normally found in damp areas, they thrive thanks to the ability to absorb water easily, despite extremely harsh conditions. The Antarctic boasts seven hundred species of algae, demonstrating the incredible survival ability of these plants.
Alien plant life in Antarctica
Over decades of exploration, numerous alien species have been transferred to the continent — some intentionally and others unwittingly. South Georgia Island, formerly a popular whaling and sealing destination, is now home to twenty-six nonnative species of vascular plants, which have thrived due to the lack of predators and relatively mild winters on the island.
The future of Antarctica’s plants
The rapid increase in the growth of mosses in the region has led experts to express concern about the warming of the Antarctic and the planet as a whole. Over the past 150 years, life has been seen developing in areas that were once considered too barren for such organisms.
While it seems inevitable that plant life on Antarctica will continue to change and develop — in ways that may not always be positive — there is a much greater variety of plant life than you might expect in this hostile, icy terrain.