A song of ice and flowers

(Despite the title of this piece, which seemed appropriate, I’ve not watched ‘Game of Thrones’ – I avoid violent TV, books and films. Andrew likes to point out that I enjoy ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ and ‘Xena Warrior Princess’, which are both pretty violent but, hey, nobody’s perfect).

As we know, plants need air, light, warmth, water and nutrients to survive and reproduce. So what happens in a place where there are three months a year of total darkness, the ground is either frozen or covered with ice and snow, and the average winter temperature is −20ºC (−6ºF) (coldest recorded is −49.2°C (−56.6°F)), sometimes with massive snowstorms and gale force winds? Where snow blocks out most light, glaciers have either scraped surfaces clean or dumped poor soil that took thousands of years to arrive where plants could use it, and the soil is frozen most of the year anyway?

What’s a plant to do? Answer: Give up and die, or adapt and wait for the growing season, then go full steam ahead into growth and reproduction mode.

There are no tall trees in Svalbard and the plants that are there hug the ground, barely rising above the top of one’s toe in a walking boot. There are two willow species, which we might normally think of as big trees, but the polar and snow willows (Salix species; photos below) are only a few centimetres high although they may be a couple of hundred years old.

The permafrost thaws 50-150 cm each summer, providing a shallow region for root growth, before freezing again. The cold, lack of light and poor soil make everything grow very slowly. In summer when the snows and glaciers melt, average temperatures get up to 7°C with 24-hour sunlight. The highest temperature ever recorded was 21.3°C (70.3°F), coldest recorded was −49.2°C (−56.6°F) so there is quite a range for a plant to cope with. When I was there (June/July), the temperature was pretty much 2°C all day and night. Then the reindeer browse, trying to fatten themselves up to feed their young (if they are lactating females) and for the winter where they survive by pawing snow and ice off the underlying plants. Hundreds of geese also browse on the plants and feed their young up for the long flights south as winter approaches.

On the western side of the archipelago, the warm water current allows the climate to be less severe (sub-polar). The northern part is an Arctic desert ecoregion.

Figures vary, but according to the Norwegian Polar Institute:

As of 2015, about 178 vascular plants, 380-390 moss species, 708 lichen species and more than 750 species of fungi have been documented in Svalbard.

… Tussocks and mat-forming growth forms, hairs, umbrella-shaped flowers, elastic roots, clonal dispersal (by which the plant produces stolons or rhizomes from which genetically identical new plants develop) and nodes are commonly observed and are adaptations to an Arctic life. Most species are also perennial. This is because Arctic plants grow very slowly, and one season is often not sufficient to accumulate resources for flowering and seed production. 

We even saw a cyanobacterium and algae (see photos below). Under the scree slopes where some bird species nest in colonies of thousands, and so lots of guano has been dropped, the vegetation is quite green and lush. The flowers were a very pretty sight against the background of stones and brown soil.

On our daily trips to land, we were divided into groups with a guide (with polar-bear-scaring rifle) each. There was initially a photographers’ group, a ‘fast walkers’ group and a group for everyone else. This last group went too fast to really get a good look at plants, and we weren’t allowed to dawdle for fear of bears, so I had a quiet word with one of the guides … Jerry Coleby-Williams … TV personality … well-known in Australia … our group interested in plants so couldn’t keep up with the others …. I might have beefed it up a bit but it had the desired effect. Next day, a special ‘plant group’ was announced, and we were given our very own guide-with-rifle. Luckily, the excellent ship’s library stretched to plants, and one of the guides had a botanical field guide, so we were set.

I will briefly mention fungi, which strictly are not plants, but which everywhere support the life of plants underground. We didn’t see any mushrooms as such, but there are quite a number (click here for some photos):

A large number of mushroom species grow in Svalbard. Most are small, some are poisonous, while others are edible and tasty. Fungi have most of their biomass under ground, invisible for man, and only produce small fruiting bodies aboveground in autumn, in order to reproduce. Their activity makes nutrients available for plant roots. The vegetation in Svalbard would be really scarce without fungi and their ability to mediate nutrition to the plants. Fungi are also an important food item for reindeer and various invertebrates.

Below are Jerry’s photos and IDs for what we saw. Thanks to Jerry for permission to use his photos. Thanks also to Bruce Moore for his photo of Jerry botanising.

Jerry botanising; photo by Bruce Moore


Joy and Ann botanising in Longyearbyen town, Spitsbergen

Alpine bistort, Persicaria vivipara, syn. Polygonum, Bistorta (Polygonaceae)

Alpine draba, Draba alpina

Alpine saxifrage, Micranthes nivalis

Arctic chickweed, Stellaria humifusa

Arctic chickweed, Stellaria humifusa

Arctic cotton grass, Eriophorum scheuzeri subsp. arcticum (in Longyearbyen town)

Arctic woodrush, Luzula nivea

Arctic woodrush, Luzula nivea


Black fleabane, Erigeron humilis

Cardamine pratensis subsp. angustifolia

Carex maritima

Cassiope tetragona

Common moss, Funaria hygrometrica

Cotton grass, Eriophorum scheuchzeri subsp. arcticum

Desiccated Arctic liverwort, Marchantiaceae, in Lilliehookbreen

Draba alpina

Draba glabella (some Arctic mouse ear)

Draba lactea (centre) – polar field horsetail, Equisetum arvense subsp. boreale

Draba oxycarpa

Draba pauciflora

Edible dulce, Palmaria palmata


Fir clubmoss, Huperzia selago

Fir clubmoss, Huperzia selago

Flattened acid kelp, Desmarestia ligulata

Foam lichen, Stereocaulon sp., Saxifraga caespitosa, moss

Foam lichen, Stereocaulon sp.

Fringed sandwort, Arenaria pseudofrigida

Glacial sedge, Carex glacialis

Glacial sedge, Carex glacialis

Greenland scurvy grass, Cochlearia groenlandica

Greenland scury-grass, Cochlearia groenlandica

Hairy lousewort, Pedicularis hirsuta

Koenigia islandica, Polygonaceae, germinating in moss

Koenigia islandica

Lapland willow grass, Draba lactea with common whitlow grass, D. alpina

Longstalk starwort, Stellaria longipes

Longstalk starwort, Stellaria longipes

Map lichen, Rhizocarpon geographicum

Marine red alga, seaweed, Phycodrys rubens

Micranthes tenuis

Moss campion, Silene acaulis

Mosses with hair cap moss, Polytrichum commune (largest)

Mountain avens, Dryas octopetala

Mountain sorrel, Oxyria digyna

Northern golden saxifrage, Chrysosplenium tetrandrum

Nostoc (a cyanobacterium)

Oarweed, Laminaria digitata

Pale whitlow grass, Draba oxycarpa

Pedicularis dasyantha

Pixie cups lichen, Cladonia asahinae – Arctic through Americas to Antarctic

Polar field horsetail, Equisetum arvense subsp. boreale

Polar foxtail grass, Alopecurus ovatus, in Kongsfjordan

Polar willow, Salix polaris, in Lilliehookbreen

Polar willow, Salix polaris

Proto insectivorous – Stylidium debile

Pygmy buttercup, Ranunculus pygmaeus


Ranunculus pygmaeus

Rockweed alga, Fucus distichus

Rock tripe, Umbilicaria sp.

Ribbon kelp, Alaria marginata

Reindeer lichen, Cladonia rangifera

Rockweed algae, Fucus distichus

Saxifraga caespitosa

Sphagnum arcticum

Snow willow, Salix reticulata

Silene acaulis with rust





Short-leaved sedge, Carex fuliginosa subsp. misandra

Saxifraga with rust


Woolly lousewort, Pedicularis dasyantha

Witch’s hair alga

Svalbard poppy, Papaver dahlianum

Sunburst lichen, Xanthoria sp.

Sulphur buttercup, Ranunculus sulphureus

Parallel sedge, Carex parallella


The sound of breath freezing

The sound of breath freezing is very much outside my experience. I’ve lived most of my life on the driest continent on Earth and some parts of it are very hot, so the concept intrigues me.  I first read about it in one of the many books I’ve been devouring on the polar regions. For the breath to freeze, the air temperature has to be much lower than I’ve experienced (which was pretty much 2ºC all day and ‘night’ in the 24-hour-light Arctic summer, and minus a couple of degrees in rare frosts at home). The lowest temperature recorded in Australia (not counting our bit of Antarctica) was -23C (-9.4F) in the Snowy Mountains in 1974.

Apparently the indigenous people of Eastern Siberia have the lovely phrase, ‘the whisper of the stars‘.

When the temperature drops below the mid-minus 50s Celsius, a soft whooshing sound can sometimes be heard, like rice or grain being poured. This noise is caused by the moisture in one’s own exhaled breath turning to ice crystals in the cold dry air.

The Weather Doctor, reporting on temperatures of -64C (-83F) in Canada, gives another description:

The freezing of one’s breath produced a continuous hissing sound similar to dry blowing snow, and a tinkle when the ice crystals hit the ground.

I cannot imagine what -50C would be like, let alone -64C, but there are plenty of people who choose to live in that world.

Ice cliff at the edge of a glacier, Svalbard. It will calve off one day with an almighty boom and wave.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Seeing so much ice and so many glaciers in Svalbard was hard to get my head around – I kept pinching myself to confirm I wasn’t dreaming. Sipping drinks in the comfortable bar of the ship, I could hear the popping of the ice cubes in the drink, taken from small floating chunks of ice  – that released air was very likely to be thousands of years old.

Of course, looking at photos is nothing like actually being there – you’re missing on out on the feel of very cold air in your nose and on your skin, the sounds (the screaming birds, the gentle hum and vibration of the ship and the waves lapping against the bow if we were moving, and the marvellous, deep silence underneath all that), movement, peripheral sights, smells (oh, how clean that air smelt!) – but the beauty cried out to be captured.

Before the trip, I thought of glaciers as pristine, white and glowing, but the reality can be very different.

The different colours indicate the contents of the ice. The brown is dirt that has been transported down with the glacier, scraped off the rock it has scoured over thousands of years. Clear ice has been compressed over thousand of years, squeezing out any air bubbles that would reflect light. White ice is the result of a top layer of snow, reflecting all colours of light so that we see white. Different shades of blue show the amount of impurities inside. Green indicates algal growth.

Close-up of Svalberg iceberg; photo by MG

As the ice melts, unique artistic forms emerge.

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

There’s a bunch of descriptive words in English for different forms of ice. Here’s how Jill Fredston puts it in her book Rowing to Latitude: Journeys along the Arctic’s Edge:

Saltwater begins to freeze at just over 28ºF [-2ºC]. It progresses from a stew of individual crystals to thicker slush, to a bendable layer that, when it thickens and whitens, is called first-year ice. Any ice that survives a summer of melt, in the process becoming bluer, denser, and less salty, is known as multiyear ice. Typically, this ice thickens to ten or twelve feet. More generally, any sea ice not fixed to the land is termed pack ice.  … Pieces of pack ice, called pans or floes, move in response to wind … In contrast, glacier icebergs … are driven primarily by current.

Bergy bits are floaters smaller than icebergs, and growlers are smaller than bergy bits. The terms go on and on.

Brash ice (small pieces broken down from larger chunks) on the left. Note the clean cut-off line on the right, probably because the sea temperature is higher there.

The various forms of sea ice are important for a number of animals. Seals haul out on it to rest and warm up between feeds, and polar bears rely on them (mainly ringed seals) for food. After hibernation in winter, bear continually roam the ice in search of whatever they can find – whale carcasses, sea birds, seals hauling out, people …

The questing bear is the cream bit in the middle.

This bear went after a bearded seal, but ringed seals are much easier to catch.

Bearded seal hauled out on ice

Photo by Bruce Moore

Photo by Bruce Moore

I’ve been reading up on ice, the properties of ice, its nature and its relationship to living things. It’s been studied extensively for several hundred years by both explorers or scientists, as well as thousands of years by indigenous people who must know it intimately to survive. I won’t bore you with stuff you can easily look up but I’ve been struck by one thing (well, many things, but this intrigued me).

It was once thought that not much lived under the ice (except fish and the things that ate them and that they ate), but that turns out to be very wrong. As divers and ROVs go down, they are finding more and more strange and wonderful creatures, such as shown here in Antarctica.

Not only do algae live on the undersurface of ice, but also small patches of bottom life. Barry Lopez tells how this can happen in his wonderful sequel to his wonderful Arctic Dreams,  called Horizon:

… in some spots a weak bottom current might eddy around a cluster of benthic creatures, rocks, and bottom sediments and come to a complete halt in some crevice or notch. Here, a few molecules of seawater might freeze. Over time this initially smaller platelet of frozen freshwater might expand (as seawater crystallizes into platelets, it squeezes out the sea salts that keep seawater from freezing at 32ºF), creating a growing matrix of freshwater ice crystals. (The specific gravity of freshwater allows crystals of it to float in seawater.) At some point the expanding mass of freshwater ice becomes large enough to exert an upward force sufficient to uproot a section of the bottom. This scrap of the benthic community continue to float upward until it lodges on the underside of the sea ice cover.

One day I almost swam straight into a dark basalt cobble floating in the water column in front of me. I assumed it was encased in freshwater ice, but I could find no angle of observation that made this apparent. Had I not learned what can happen in these very cold waters, I would have had to conclude that here in Antarctica, dens rocks float.

We have so very much to learn.