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Land and Climate of Antarctica

Vegetation in Antarctica

Almost completely covered by thick ice, Antarctica has very little land available for soils to form or vegetation to settle. Existing soils were formed late in the continent’s geologic history and have little organic content or water-holding capacity. Isolation from other continents makes it difficult for new types of vegetation to spread to Antarctica. Constant low temperatures, high winds, and lack of moisture discourage all but the hardiest plants, which may be capable of active growth for only a few days per year. These factors limit plant life in Antarctica almost entirely to protists (simple, often one-celled organisms), algae, lichens, and mosses. Only two known species of flowering plants, both found only on the Antarctic Peninsula and neighboring islands, grow in Antarctica. The continent has no equivalent of Arctic tundra, which supports a greater variety of plant life: Antarctica’s richest vegetation compares with the northernmost, scarcest Arctic polar desert vegetation. Nevertheless, patches of vegetation grow on all known rocky outcrops in Antarctica, to within 290 km (180 mi) of the South Pole. Snow algae grow on snow and ice surfaces close to the coast, especially along the Antarctic Peninsula where seabird droppings and sea spray provide nutrients. Minute lichens grow within the surface layers of crystalline rocks, and microbes are present in snow, soils and ice-covered lakes.

Antarctic waters support other types of vegetation. Coastal seaweeds thrive on and around islands near the Antarctic Convergence, but are inhibited farther south where sea ice scrapes the shores. The cold waters of the Southern Ocean support masses of phytoplankton—minute floating plants including diatoms, dinoflagellates, and other algae—that proliferate in summer, especially in areas where upwelling brings nutrient-rich waters to the surface. Phytoplankton provides a rich source of food for marine animals.

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