Teardrop Revival

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A moss (Aulacomnium turgidum), one of seven plants frozen under Teardrop Glacier roughly 400 years ago and induced to grow new stems and shoots in a lab.  Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

A moss (Aulacomnium turgidum), one of seven plants frozen under Teardrop Glacier roughly 400 years ago and induced to grow new stems and shoots in a lab.
Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

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.

Discolored mosses and lichens revealed by the melting of Teardrop Glacier.  Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

Discolored mosses and lichens revealed by the melting of Teardrop Glacier.
Image: Catherine La Farge via Smithsonian Magazine

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.

Teardrop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, central Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Note: Little Ice Age trimline ~ 200 m beyond the ice margin. Measured ice retreat has rapidly accelerated since 2004 exposing pristine LIA plant communities composed of bryophytes and vascular plants From: Arctic Workshop 2013 Abstract

Teardrop Glacier, Sverdrup Pass, central Ellesmere Island, Nunavut. Note: Little Ice Age trimline ~ 200 m beyond the ice margin. Measured ice retreat has rapidly accelerated since 2004 exposing pristine LIA plant communities composed of bryophytes and vascular plants
From: Arctic Workshop 2013 Abstract

More:
Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) studyRegeneration of Little Ice Age bryophytes emerging from a polar glacier with implications of totipotency in extreme environments by C. La Farge, K.H. Williams, J.H. England
Smithsonian Magazine articlePlants Frozen Under a Glacier for 400 Years Can Come Back to Life

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  1. Pingback: What we talk about when we talk about war (V) | champagnewhisky

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