It has been nearly 100 years since Ernst Shackleton and the crew of the Endurance became stuck in the pack ice of Antarctica’s Weddell Sea, east of the Antarctic Peninsula. The explorers finally escaped their doomed ship in two small boats and reached the relative safety of the sub-Antarctic, South Georgia Islands.
Much has changed along that far away peninsula, particularly over the last fifty years. It is now one of the fastest warming places on Earth. Temperature measurements made by the British Antarctic Survey indicate that the Antarctic Peninsula has warmed nearly 4F between 1960-2012. According to Robert Mulvaney, a paleo-climatologist with the Survey,
"We are now approaching the temperatures last seen 12,000 years ago.”
As bare ground becomes exposed by the receding ice, it shouldn’t be surprising that biological changes might start being observed. Plants are particularly sensitive to their environment and seed dispersal can occur via the wind, animals and birds, or as unintended stowaways on tourist boats and boots. Antarctic hair grass, Deschampsia Antarctica, is one of the two flowering plants that grow along the western Antarctic Peninsula. On well drained slopes, mosses develop ancient, deep mats of peat as well. These plants have extended their ranges ince the first records were made in the 1950’s. In summarizing the impacts of the recent warming, the Survey dryly concludes:
“It is reasonable to predict that continued warming, especially in the summer, would cause significant regional impacts. Retreat of coastal ice and loss of snow cover would result in newly exposed rock and permafrost providing new habitats for colonization by expanding and invading flora and fauna.”
Antarctic Peninsula Map of Antarctica
(credit: NASA) (credit: Wiki-commons)
Antarctic Peninsula Moss Antarctic Hair Grass
(credit: British Antarctic Survey) (credit: Rod Strachan)
I wouldn’t suggest an expedition to try and locate that super-rare black orchid but keep watching those plants in a landscape far away and warming rapidly.