Antarctica Growing Green With Grass

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Will Antarctica be the next market for lawnmowers?

The rapid warming of the Antarctic has been a boon for two native plants. As the temperature warms ancient peat decomposes into a nitrogen buffet for the Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis) and Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia antarctica).

A study by British and Australian scientists suggests that one of those plants, hairgrass, is able to absorb that nitrogen buffet up to 160 times faster than their mossy competitors.

“We think of the Antarctic as a land of snow and ice. But in summer, on the Antarctic Peninsula and the islands surrounding the frozen center of the continent, the snow melts and many areas become green with mosses and two species of native flowering plant,” said one of the authors of the study, Bangor University scientist Paul Hill in a press release from the school.

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“Recently, as global temperatures have increased, and Antarctic summers have become longer and warmer, one of these flowering plants, Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia antarctica), has become increasingly widespread,” Hill said.

Mosses formerly dominated the two percent of Antarctica that can support plant life.

But the polar regions, including the Antarctic, have warmed far faster than the rest of the planet during the past 50 years. Now the vascular plants are taking over.

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“Plants need nitrogen to grow successfully. In coastal Antarctica, most of the nitrogen is locked in organic matter in the soil, which has been slow to decompose in the cold conditions. This is now becoming more available as temperatures increase,” said Davey Jones of Bangor University, another author of the study published recently in Nature Climate Change.

The researchers found that hairgrass acquires nitrogen through its roots as short chains of molecules, or peptides, produced early in protein decomposition. That allows the plants to acquire nitrogen over three times faster than if they had to wait for bacteria to break proteins down into amino acids, nitrates, or ammonium.

Mosses just can’t match nitrogen absorbing speed like that.

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IMAGE 1: Antarctic hair grass, Deschampsia antarctica, at Petermann Island (Wikimedia Commons)

IMAGE 2: Antarctic hair grass, Deschampsia antarctica at Collins Glacier, Antarctica (Wikimedia Commons)