Catherine LaFarge, a geologist from the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, was recently visiting Ellesmere Island in the Canadian Arctic with a team of scientists when she wandered upon something that immediately caught her attention: Clumps of moss and plants that were mostly brown or blackened.
But upon closer inspection, LaFarge noticed that amidst the dead plant life there were green clumps indicating that regeneration and regrowth had begun, which is amazing when you consider that the moss had once been buried under a glacier.
As Ancient Origins notes, the moss was covered by ice for at least 400 years:
“The Teardrop Glacier had spread all across Ellesmere Island during the Little Ice Age, a global cold spell that affected weather and climate conditions in the Northern Hemisphere between 1550 and 1850.
“Incredibly, moss that had been buried and frozen solid beneath the Teardrop Glacier had begun to regenerate, as if it hadn’t been affected by its centuries-long entombment at all.”
What LaFarge found were what’s known as bryophytes, which have existed on the Earth for millennia and are known to be extremely resilient. Bryophytes are essential to polar ecosystems. And the way they manage to survive is nothing short of incredible:
“New moss doesn’t grow from seeds or spores, but from individual plant cells that can create copies of themselves directly. This unique quality may contribute to moss’s ability to regenerate quickly and robustly, even after being placed in suspended frozen animation underneath a glacier for more than four centuries.”
LaFarge’s discovery is causing a complete rethinking about the ability of life to survive while frozen for hundreds of years. Yet something even more amazing was uncovered by a team of British researchers about a year after the Canadian made their findings:
“British scientists retrieved moss samples from deep inside a frozen moss bank found on the Antarctic tundra. Using radiocarbon dating, they discovered the moss was approximately 1,500 years old. But despite its tremendous antiquity, when the plants were sliced into sections and placed inside an incubator, after a few weeks they, too, began to regenerate.
“Even after suffering through the deepest of deep freezes in the coldest continent on our planet, these moss samples had not lost their capacity to regenerate when given enough light, water and nutrition.”
Professor Peter Convey, one of the lead scientists involved in the British study, explained the implications of the new discoveries:
“This experiment shows that multi-cellular organisms, plants in this case, can survive over far longer timescales than previously thought.These mosses, a key part of the ecosystem, could survive century to millennial periods of ice advance.”
“If they can survive in this way, then recolonisation following an Ice Age, once ice retreats, would be a lot easier than migrating trans-oceanic distances from warmer regions. It also maintains diversity in an area that would otherwise be wiped clean of life by the ice advance.”
But there’s a warning that needs to be applied to these remarkable new insights, and it hasn’t been lost on researchers, despite their excitement over finding that life can indeed survive for centuries when frozen: What if long-dormant viruses or bacteria are thawed out? We likely don’t have any no medications or cures for such things, meaning that lethal microorganisms might be unleashed on the world, leading to a global pandemic and death on a scale we cannot possibly imagine.
As climate change continues to cause the thawing of previously frozen sections of our planet, we will have to be on the lookout for new revelations as well as new dangers.
Here’s more information about the type of bryophyte found in Canada: