Ellesmere Island Teardrop Glacier Moss: What Do Frozen Arctic Plants Tell Us About Climate Change?

By Philip Ross on May 28, 2013 1:37 PM EDT

ellesmere Island Teardrop Glacier Moss
Researchers in Canada have discovered that centuries-old mosses survived 400 years of being frozen under ice on Ellesmere Island (pictured). As the glacial ice on Ellesmere Island retreats, it reveals habitats long thought to be lost. (Photo: Reuters)

Canada's melting glaciers have revealed that centuries-old mosses, blackened from being frozen in ice for hundreds of years, have sprouted back to life.

A group of researchers from the University of Alberta discovered that, as the glaciers on Canada's Ellesmere Island retreat, vegetation that was locked up in the ice and presumably dead has regrown. The research team, led by Dr. Catherine La Farge, witnessed that underneath Teardrop Glacier, a large chunk of ice that formed during the Little Ice Age between 1550 and 1580 and has retreated more than 650 feet, was an entire ecosystem of bryophytes. Bryophytes are among the earliest land plants.

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This recent discovery could change our understanding of how ecosystems rejuvenate following glacial retreat.

Ellesmere Island, an island in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago tucked away in the northernmost corner of Canada's Nunavut territory, lies within the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Roughly one-third the size of Texas, the island is draped in glaciers and ice. During the Little Ice Age, the period of rapid global cooling that occurred between 1550 and 1580, much of the Canadian arctic became covered with glaciers. The ice entombed anything that was growing on the island's surface.

Now, these glaciers are melting. With the glacial retreat, which happens on Ellesmere Island at a rate of about three to four meters each year, scientists can study the vegetation that was once underneath it.

"When we got the material back in the lab we observed green lateral branch growth from old [Little Ice Age] stems, which suggested they might actually still be viable. So we decided to try culturing the material," La Farge said.

According to ABC Science, when La Farge's team got back to the lab with samples of the blackened moss, they ground up the samples and sprinkled them on to petri dishes full of potting mix. Miraculously, the plants started to grow.

So how did 400-year-old frozen plants sprout back to life? Mainly, because the frozen temperatures preserved some of their cells.

"Regeneration of sub-glacial bryophytes broadens the concept of Ice Age refugia, traditionally confined to survival of land plants to sites above and beyond glacier margins," the researchers report. "Our results emphasize the unrecognized resilience of bryophytes, which are commonly overlooked vis-a-vis their contribution to the establishment, colonization, and maintenance of polar terrestrial ecosystems."

The team's findings are published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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