It’s eons-old moss, and it has not been seen in at least 400 years, scientists say.
Yet as the Teardrop Glacier in the far northern Canadian Arctic recedes, the moss that has been interred beneath is springing back to life, scientists with the University of Alberta have discovered.
"As we walked up to the edge of the glacier, we could see patches of mosses that seemed to be coming out from underneath the ice," project leader Catherine La Farge told National Geographic, recounting the team’s first glimpse as they conducted a biodiversity study of plants and mosses near the glacier. "They were blackened, but there were also tints of green in there as well. As I looked more closely I thought, 'Oh my gosh, what's this? Either this has somehow managed to retain a vestige of its original color or it's just started to grow again after centuries under the ice.' The thought of that just blew my mind.”
A number of scientific minds have been blown as radio-carbon dating on ground-up samples showed that yes, the live moss emerging from underneath the glacier was indeed 400 to 600 years old. Not only that, but the researchers were able to cultivate four moss species, National Geographic said. It was still growing a year later. The group published its results in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in May.
The mosses, known as bryophytes, had been buried since the so-called Little Ice Age, which lasted from 1550 to 1850, when the Earth was much cooler and glaciers blanketed much more of the Northern Hemisphere than today.
The glacier has been shrinking between 10 and 13 feet annually since 2004, La Farge told the Canadian Press. The plant life that was revealed was thought to be dead, but then they saw green and realized it was merely dormant. The moss is a type known as bryophyte.
“We know that bryophytes can remain dormant for many years (for example, in deserts) and then are reactivated, but nobody expected them to rejuvenate after nearly 400 years beneath a glacier,” La Farge said in a university statement. “These simple, efficient plants, which have been around for more than 400 million years, have evolved a unique biology for optimal resilience.”
Among many potential contributions, the find holds implications for cultivating life on Mars or other planets, scientists said.
La Farge will interview live on the CBC Radio One show Quirks & Quarks on Saturday, June 1 at noon.