Last year I pulled from our garage a small, disused windowbox containing only black soil and decaying plant bits. Intending to clean and replant the box, I left it on a ledge under the open sky. It rained, and a few days later, I found the tiniest tinge of green where none had been before. Within a couple of weeks, I had a windowbox of expanding and aptly named ‘liveforever’ plants (Sempervivum), which thrive to this day.
I was surprised by the re-emergence of small plants that had been dormant for over two years. Imagine the surprise of the researchers who found plants emerging and spreading from underneath a 400-year-old glacier.
Ellesmere Island’s Teardrop Glacier, which formed during the Little Ice Age of the mid-16th century, covered the island’s vegetation until very recently. The retreat of the glacier exposed the remains of that vegetation, blackened clumps of frozen mosses, liverworts and lichens, non-vascular plants generally known as bryophytes.
When researchers discovered green sprouts shooting up from some of the clumps, they had the plants tested. The results showed that the plants were not related to the existing, surrounding vegetation, and radiocarbon dating of the blackened, frozen parts of the plants put their age at between 400 and 615 years old.
From a Smithsonian Magazine article: “The discovery could substantially change our understanding of the way ecosystems regenerate after glacial retreat—a pretty important topic, given what’s currently happening to wide swaths of the Arctic given current melting trends.
If glaciers serve as reservoirs of plant species that can potentially regenerate, it means that the ecosystems that sprout in the glaciers’ wake are more likely to be made up of these original plant types rather than the quickly-growing, newly arrived colonizing species scientists had previously assumed would dominate such environments.”
As climate change gets underway in earnest, and retreating glaciers expose life which has been in frozen suspension for hundreds or thousands of years, I wonder what other life is still waiting to burst forth and how our own expectations will be tested.