What’s Green In Antarctica?

One of nature’s little quirks sees the world’s most southerly continent Antarctica, classified as a desert. Wikipedia states: “This polar desert is planet earth’s largest, coldest and driest region.” If this fact isn’t in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not, then it should be.

Heading southwards to Antarctica in the summer of 2008, visions of whiteness, glaciers and penguins danced before my eyes….not green.

So what is green down below?

Plants

Greenery in Antarctica

Greenery in Antarctica

Circa back around 85 million years and you could have been picking flowers way down south around the Antarctic Circle. Today, in the 21st century, for an up close with lichens take a look at Heard Island. This largest sub Antarctic island has no human introduced plants and you could, (if it was allowed that was,) brighten up your vase with around 12 species of flowering plants.

What’s more, swap your plant vase for a fossil basket and marvel at ancient plant forms.

The Antarctic Peninsula and Transantarctic mountains yield the most common fossil wood finds and the oldest microbes ever found are recent discoveries of DNA and bacteria dated at around 8 million years.

Katabatic winds (also termed descending winds) and blizzards race off the Antarctic Plateau at up to 100 miles per hour. This unique phenomenon discourages growth of anything larger than “knee high to a grasshopper”. Our current civilization’s version of going green Antarctic style sees the main stayers being lichens, mosses and algae.

Ice Runways

 

Wilkins new ice runway, with no trees for navigation

Wilkins new ice runway, with no trees for navigation

Perhaps the strangest example of plant growth was in 1957 when 24 pine trees were re located from New Zealand and planted alongside ‘Willy Field’, McMurdo Sound’s landing strip. The Air Force modus operandi of marking ice runways in the Northern hemisphere wouldn’t get off the ground down south today with environmental protocol protected under the Antarctic treaty.

February 2008 saw the opening of the latest glacial blue ice runway, the 2.5-mile long Australian Wilkins runway. Modern technology now sees the sides of the runway marked with precision approach path indicators. In light of environmental issues, these are definitely more preferable than pine trees.

Antarctic Hothouses

Arctowski Polish Research Station

Arctowski Polish Research Station

Over 40 scientific bases are spread over this huge continent and a literal growth industry has been the implementation of hothouses to provide the fresh food component of their daily diet. On the menu is a veritable farmers market of vegetables and herbs.

One highlight of the winter over season is the humble tomato. Inter base rivalry sees their tomato seeds planted May 1st, with the largest or weirdest shaped tomato grown in 3 months winning the competition. What a great way to fill in leisure time, as you not only get to enjoy the fruits of your labor, you also get to lord it over the other competing research stations.

Antarctic hothouse produce is grown hydroponically. No possible biological invasion via soil is allowed. Apart from the unique challenge of growing food in this hostile environment, certain something not found elsewhere in the world is that Antarctic home grown flavour.

Green Energy

Icebergs in the mist

Icebergs in the mist

Wind harvesting is the way to go in Antarctica. Type ‘wind energy Antarctica’ into Google and get off track reading about NASA scientists who are excited about using similar hybrid wind and solar prototypes on the planet Mars.

Efficient energy is the key word for both habitats, and Antarctica has been developing wind turbines in an environment that has seen wind speeds topping 155 miles per hour. Antarctica’s harshness has previously deterred the use of wind turbines, but modern technology combined with cooperative expertise from various treaty countries has seen advancement in the field and reality has finally caught up with the dream.

The latest example is the world’s first zero emission Antarctic research station. Belgium-built “Princes Elisabeth” was up and running for the 2008 summer season. Solar panels and 8 wind turbines are the core energy sources and sustainability is the catch-word for the future when it comes to the reality of satisfying the world’s rapidly growing clean energy needs. Kinetic energy here we come.

But let’s not stop there. Take this clean power solution one step further as we visualize a future where Antarctica will eventually have an electricity surplus, which could be exported via super-conductive undersea electric power cables to South America and beyond.

If our new energy technology is OK for Mars, I guess it’s OK for South America and the rest of us “Earthlings”.

Penguins

Ice-skating penguins

Ice-skating penguins

Wiki.answers.com lists 18 species of penguins worldwide, and the Antarctic continent

is the home ground where 4 species breed.

Adelie penguins have white around their eyes giving a constant surprised look, while the Chinstrap’s markings add a certain something to their black & white suits.

The Gentoo family follows the nesting norm, Antarctic style and gathers small pebbles into a circle nest. Stone envy is not uncommon in these environs and stealing is a common problem that sees neighborhood fights on a regular basis during the breeding season.

The unforgettable Emperor Penguin, star of the hit movie ‘Happy Feet’, holds the title of the world’s largest penguin. He also has the longest walk of all, up to 75 miles to court and breed during the Antarctic winter season on this amazing continent. What has been termed ‘The Biggest Crèche in the World’ sees around 25,000 Emperor Penguins herding their young into huddles to conserve warmth and save them from freezing to death.

NB: My up close and personal green encounter with frozen algae on Petermann Island wasn’t that dramatic, just my downfall. One fractured coccyx later saw me envying the young penguins as they learnt to ice skate on their slice of green Antarctica.

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I wouldn’t change anything about this amazing and precious part of our world. Let’s hope Antarctica stays as green as she is, tourism, scientists, technology and Mars notwithstanding.

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Older comments on What’s Green In Antarctica?

Sean Keener
30 December 2008

Good ideas here. The title of the article got me. What is Green down there? Thanks for sharing Lynda.