(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.