LIFE ON LAND
Life on land in Antarctica is limited by extreme cold, strong winds and a desert climate with a lack of water and food sources.
For those hardy species that have managed to gain a foothold on the ice-free land, life is a constant balancing act as they seek out enough food, shelter and water to survive.
Antarctica is a polar desert, with around 99 percent of the continent permanently covered by ice. The average yearly rainfall at the South Pole between 1990 and 2020 was a tiny 0.4 in (10 mm). For six months every year Antarctica is shrouded in darkness, and temperatures can hover around −4 °F ( −20 °C) for months, dropping below -76°F (-60°C) in winter.
Despite this harsh environment, a small community of resilient plants and animals has managed to carve out a niche for themselves in Antarctica’s ice-free areas, not only surviving but thriving in these harsh conditions.
The climate crisis is having different impacts in different parts of Antarctica. Some areas are warming rapidly and receiving more rain and snow, while others are becoming drier due to changed wind patterns, also caused by human activity.
All of these changes are putting pressure on Antarctica’s delicately balanced ecosystems to adapt to rapidly changing conditions.
Moss, lichen and liverwort
Most of Antarctica’s plant life is made up of small, low-lying communities of mosses, liverworts and lichens scattered across ice-free areas around the continent.
There are over 100 different species of these plants found across Antarctica. Some of them are extremely hardy and long-lived. Some moss beds on the Antarctic Peninsula and in East Antarctica are hundreds or even thousands of years old.
Antarctica’s miniature moss ‘forests’ provide food and shelter for over 60 microscopic species of invertebrates, including springtails, rotifers, nematodes and tardigrades.
The majority of these species are found only in Antarctica, although some can be found in other places around the world.
There are two flowering plants found in Antarctica: Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).
Most of Antarctica’s permanent land inhabitants are microscopic insects. The largest species living on the continent is the Antarctic midge (Belgica antarctica), at 0.07 inches (2-6mm) long.
In East Antarctica, strengthening winds caused by the climate crisis are making the already dry climate much drier. This is having an impact on moss beds, which need water to survive.
The moss beds near Australia’s Casey Station are so green and lush, researchers have dubbed the region the ‘Daintree of the Antarctic’, named after Australia’s tropical Daintree Rainforest. In this area, individual moss plants can grow for up to 100 years. Some moss beds are so ancient researchers have called them the ‘old growth forests’ of Antarctica. But researchers are reporting dramatic changes to these remote moss communities clinging to the edge of the icy desert.
During a 13 year study in the early 2000s, almost half of these healthy, green mosses started drying out. Many of them started turning red or gray, indicating they were under stress or dying. This appeared to be impacting highly specialized natives, such as the water-loving Schistidium antarctici, most severely. As these rare Antarctic species dry and die, they are being replaced by new, more common drought-tolerant mosses, which are found across the world.
The Antarctic Peninsula is warming faster than almost anywhere else on earth. Between 1970 and 2020, temperatures warmed by around 5°F (3°C).
In February 2020, a new Antarctic temperature record was set on the northern Antarctic Peninsula, when the mercury reached 64.9°F (18.3°C) for the first time in recorded history.
Image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, Joshua Stevens
On the Antarctic Peninsula, moss beds are flourishing in a rapidly warming climate. Some mosses in the region are growing four times more quickly today than 50 years ago.
While this new plant growth may sound like good news, it is not that simple. Although mosses may thrive as the climate heats, permafrost (a layer of soil, sand and ice that has been frozen for many years) is also beginning to thaw. Permafrost contains organic matter, which may have been frozen for millennia. As permafrost thaws, microbes break that organic matter down, producing greenhouse gasses such as methane as a byproduct. When these gasses are released they speed up the heating of the atmosphere.
Warmer, wetter conditions on the Antarctic Peninsula are also making the region more hospitable to invasive introduced species, which threaten to out-compete unique species found only in Antarctica.
Poa annua, a hardy turf grass that thrives further north, was accidentally introduced to Antarctica near a scientific station in 1953. It is spreading rapidly, presenting a threat to native Antarctic plants, particularly Antarctica’s two flowering plants. Efforts to eradicate it are underway, but this is difficult and time-consuming.
Learn all about life in Antarctica.
Life on Ice
Reduced sea ice is impacting Antarctic life.
Life at Sea
Warmer oceans are affecting ecosystems.
Parts of Antarctica are changing rapidly.
Discover amazing Antarctic adaptations.