In a time and place where giants are fighting to save the whales. And where wide concern is arousing about the way the Japanese government is handling the disaster that took place on the world's sole remaining whale floating factory, the Nisshin Maru. It is worthwhile to see what precious nature is actually there to protect . A little series about the Antarctic environment.
Ask someone to describe Antarctica and he or she will most likely say "a bloody cold and icy place with a penguin or two". With a bit of luck he or she will also know about the birds and some other animals. What most people don't know is that a stunning one- to two percent (depending on the time of year) of the continent is ice- and snow free. Some of these places are along the coasts. But often these are between "wetter" inland mountain ranges and nunatak areas. Many of these rare spots are covered with a variety of unique Antarctic plant life.
The terrestrial plants can be divided in five groups; higher plants, lichens, fungi, mosses and algae. Due to the harshness of the environment not a lot of diversity is found and, using one page per species, a book with 500 pages is probably enough to cover the continent's plant life. The sub Antarctic islands up North -very confusing for a European who associates north with cold and south with warm- have more moderate and wetter climates and thus can sustain a more diverse flora with larger plants.
Antarctica has two species of flowering plants; Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis). These only occur in the moderate regions. The most abundant as well as most adapted plants are the lichens. Found almost at the south pole the continent has about 300 different species. They grow very slowly -0.01 to 1 millimetre a year- and the oldest ones (Usnea sphacelata) found are about 4500 years old. Then there are the mosses and macro-fungies with 100 and 20 species.
Maybe the most wide spread ones are also the smallest: Algae (non-marine)! These little buggers are found everywhere from cracks in rocks, to melt water streams, to muddy areas. The most spectacular to see probably are the snow algae which form large red, yellow, blue or green patches in areas of everlasting snow.
The small species are very sensitive and it has been shown that fumes from fossil fuel burning (ships, generators) already had an impact in the direct vicinity of research stations. With the arrival of more and more tourists vessels (see the IAATO statistics) every year it is to be seen what kind of impact this will have.
As with other Antarctic lifeforms most of these species, and their interaction with the environment, has had little study. What is know is that many of these species depend on clean air and because of their characteristics (e.g. slow growing) are extremely vulnerable to changes.