The Very Few Plants of Antarctica

Without much soil, Antarctica naturally lacks much plant life. The British Antarctic Survey – which is pretty much the most reliable source of natural-history info on the continent – claims that only two flowering plants can be found on Antarctica, and then only on the peninsula, the area where the Carleton trip will go:

  • Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and
  • Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).

Neither is the sort of plant you’d like to have in a pot in your house. Or could, since they thrive in cold, dry, windy places, not your damn living room.

BAS reports that besides those “flowering plants,” Antarctica is home to

around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, 300 to 400 species of lichens and 20-odd species of macro-fungi.

Incredibly, some moss and lichens live in rocks in the coldest, dryest parts of the continent. So much for being “lower plant groups,” right? Show me some dumb oak or pine that can do that.

As Antarctica warms, plants are the among the most dangerous invaders – but as you’d expect given humankind’s colossal stupidity, we also brought some invasive species to the continent. For example, Poa pratensis was introduced as part of a study in 1954-1955. It’s since been eradicated.

To prevent this kind of disaster, travelers to Antarctica – even or especially tourists a-larking – have to carefully disinfect themselves before going ashore. Glad to do it!

Antarctic Extremes

Antarctica is extremely extreme. Everybody knows it’s cold, but not only is it really cold, it’s also very dry, very high, very empty, very far from everything else…

Dry: obviously, very little rain falls in Antarctica, though the peninsula – the most temperate part of the continent – does see significant liquid precipitation: about 20 inches (500 millimeters) a year. Other coastal regions get about 8 inches (200mm) a year. Everywhere else on the continent, all the water falls as snow, and then only in tiny quantities that total about 2 inches (50mm) a year. The amazingly named “McMurdo Dry Valleys,” though, have a whole ‘nother thing going on:

In fact, scientists believe that in some parts of the Dry Valleys it hasn’t snowed or rained for 14 million years!


High: The average elevation across the continent is 1.5 miles (2,500 meters). The South Pole is a bit higher, at 1.8 miles (2,830m), and the highest spot on the continent, the Vinson Massif, is almost exactly three miles high (4,892m) – about half the height of Qomolungma/Sagarmatha/Everest, and the fifth highest of the Seven Summits.

Empty: Yeah, there’s not much there except snow and ice. No permanent human inhabitants, for starters. No terrestrial animals – no mammals, no reptiles, no amphibians. Just a few plants, all low to the ground, slow growing, and native to the few spots of open land near the coasts.

On the other wing, the continent has lots of birds, at least along the coastline, and of course lots and lots of ocean life, from fish and krill to marine mammals, including the elephant seal, which is the largest carnivoran! (This, I don’t quite understand yet: orcas are larger, but they’re not “carnivorans.”)

Cold: Even the Antarctica Peninsula, the warmest part of the continent, doesn’t get very warm. During “austral summer,” temperatures on the peninsula can rise to around 40º F (4º C), but are often below freezing, and can drop to 10º F (-12º C). The South Pole is way colder all the time:

The average annual temperature is -49 °C (-56 °F), ranging from about -28 °C (-18 °F) in January to about -59.5 °C (-74.5 °F) in July. The lowest recorded temperature is -83 °C (-117 °F), while the highest is -12 °C (10 °F).


And yes, -117º F is pretty damn cold, but not the coldest! The continental and world record for cold was recorded in 1983 at the Soviet Union’s Vostok station, about 800 miles from the South Pole. In July 1983, the poor bastards there recorded a low temperature of -128.6 °F (-89.2 °C). The highest temperature ever recorded at Vostok 7º F (-14 °C). Be glad you’re not the guy who has to check that thermometer.

Vostok Station (via Wikipedia)

Werner Herzog at the Bottom of the World

A fun part of my prep for the Antarctica trip is watching documentaries on Antarctica. They’re naturally focused on penguins *() and the South Pole, but the German auteur-weirdo Werner Herzog’s Encounters at the End of the World (2007) was refreshingly different – though if you have watched any Herzog docs, you know he’s going to focus on the fellow-weirdos he meets. Spoiler alert: there are a lot of weirdos in Antarctica!

Over the film’s 99 minutes, Herzog performs an artful bait-and-switch that’s worth the price of the rental. The movie starts by dwelling at length on the ugliness of the American base on McMurdo Sound (he compares it to a mining camp) and the nuttiness of the people who work there – folks who could be working at a small-town gas station. There’s the survival trainer who puts his students’ heads in white utility buckets, leashes them together, and then has them try to find their way around an open snowfield. They can’t. They’d all die in a whiteout blizzard. Less terrifyingly, Herzog talks with a heavy-equipment driver who says with undergraduate profundity, “The universe dreams through our dreams. And I think that there are many different ways for reality to bring itself forward, and dreaming is definitely one of those ways.”

After his stay at McMurdo, Herzog gradually goes further and further into the wilderness of Antarctica – true wilderness, devoid of any humans but scientists. He journeys to the lip of perpetually-erupting Mt. Erebus – named for one of the ships sailed to Antarctica in 1839-1843 by the eminent 19th century explorer James Clark Ross – to talk with the volcanologists there. One helpfully offers tips for surviving a rain of lava from the lake below, where the earth’s crust is torn open. (Don’t turn your away from the lava lake: back away it, don’t run from it, so you can see the lava bombs sailing toward you and duck, or maybe contemplate your obliteration.)

Later – or maybe earlier; it’s hard to tell since the film has no real narrative direction – Herzog visits a team of biologists camped on an ice shelf to study the seals that swim, invisible but audible, under them. Some of the researchers gently ambush female seals by covering their heads with a bag and then milk them to analyze their milk – thick like latex paint, amazingly devoid of lactose – and understand how they can possibly perpetuate their species in a place like this. One of the seal-ologists says, almost sheepishly, that the place is so quiet she can hear her heartbeat. Then Herzog films them splaying themselves out on the ice to listen not to their own heartbeats, but to the seals’ otherworldly submarine songs.

That is the sort of arresting image that Herzog loves, and that fills this beautiful film – not empty whitescapes, but nearly empty ones where a trio of researchers crouch on the ice, geologists perch on the rim of a volcano, or a tiny vehicle zooms over the white vacuum , or a diver, taking his last plunge, swims along the sea bed, taking video of the bizarre animals that – unlike the humans – are perfectly at home in this harsh, beautiful place.

A continent with no countries

One of the most interesting aspects of Antarctica as a place is that, unlike pretty much every square foot of every other continent, Antarctica does not belong to any country. In a very real sense, Antarctica belongs to the international community.

This is due mostly, or at least legally, to the Antarctic Treaty, which was signed by an initial dozen countries on December 1, 1959, and which has been steadily expanded and improved since then. Right now, 52 countries have acceded to the treaty.

In preparing for my trip to Antarctica, I’ve enjoyed reading about the treaty, its history, and its present effects. One aspect of the treaty that I find surprising and inspiring is its grounding in the International Geophysical Year of 1958-1959, a massive effort to broaden the base of scientific knowledge about the planet – everything from magnetism and gravity to oceanography and meteorology. The IGY was not wholly exempt from Cold War tensions. For instance, the U.S.S.R. and the U.S. both launched their first space satellites during its span, and the U.S. founded NASA to manage its part of the Space Race.

Despite or even because of the competition between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R., the IGY did dramatically improve what humanity knew about Antarctica, and create infrastructure for future science, from surveys and exploration to the establishment of several new scientific stations. While this could well have led to the renewal of national claims to Antarctic territory, instead the international community went in the polar (ha!) opposite direction – toward making Antarctica a neutral place. The Antarctic Treaty, signed two years later, legally set the entire continent and its waters outside the nation-state system.

Diplomatic Conference on the Antarctic Treaty (1959)

Representatives of the initial twelve counties, and of 40 more since 1961, signed because they

Recognized that it is in the interest of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord

[and were]

Convinced also that a treaty ensuring the use of Antarctica for peaceful purposes only and the continuance of international harmony in Antarctica will further the purposes and principles embodied in the Charter of the United Nations.

Fourteen short articles outlined specifics such as banning nuclear weapons and military maneuvers and endorsing scientific cooperation – and how to maintain and expand the treaty permanently.

I find all those pretty inspiring on its own and as a sign that humans can sometimes make good collective choices. Against the backdrop of current efforts – so far, woefully lacking – to combat climate change, the treaty’s longevity and real power seem even more important. We – humans, organizations, countries – can work together to slow or halt climate change, or any of the zillion other international problems with which we’ve plagued ourselves (including, of course, the present plague).

Maybe. Sometimes? I hope.

Corona Art

I was surprised to see art on the walls of the small exhibit space in the art building! Turns out, it’s last year’s junior art students’ show – work they couldn’t exhibit last spring because the world melted down. Beyond its excellent name, the show includes lots of great drawings, among other wonderful stuff. If this is any indication of this cohort’s skill, their senior show in the spring should be great!

Pandemic! in the Men’s Room

The old building where I’ve worked my whole time at Carleton is being renovated this year, so we’ve relocated to slightly less old building that boasts all of two restrooms. I dunno about the women’s, but the men’s has two stalls – done up in heavy, dark wood like a lavatory at Hogwarts – which under the new pandemic rules, has the capacity for just one, uh, user at a time. Barging in and knocking didn’t work very well to determine occupancy, so a colleague installed a four-phase system for using the restroom.

Phase I: Arrive and flip the occupancy sign to red:

Phase 2: Do your business and as you leave, let Uncle Sam remind you to flip the sign over:

Phase 3: Immediately forget to flip the sign over, but be reminded by the other sign, pinned to the bulletin board straight across the corridor:

Phase 4: Flip the sign back to green and walk away, wondering if touching the sign negated the 20 seconds of hand washing:


Every day before going to work, I’m supposed to complete a short form to document that I don’t have any COVID symptoms. Sometimes I swing a little late, but so far I’m batting 1.000. It’s bizarre how satisfying I find that streak of “Green – Negative” descriptions. Proof of my virtue, or luck, or privilege, or something.

Physical Distancing on Campus

With the return of students to campus last week and the start of classes today (finally!), signs about masks, about hand washing, about COVID symptoms, and about physical distancing* have flowered everywhere: walls, doors, windows, bathroom stalls, floors, pillars… I guess I haven’t seen any on trees or ceilings, but maybe those will show up tomorrow.

And anywhere two people can queue up, the floor is marked with traffic-flow arrows, spacing dots or x’s, reminders about the magical six feet (“2M,” if you’re metric)…

Who was that masked student?

I had my individual meetings with my four first-year advisees today – nice young men and women,* all suburbanites, all student-athletes, all excited about college. None of them took me up on my offer to have our meetings by video call, and each of them commented in one way or another about being “Zoomed out” after a disrupted senior year of high school, a summer spent looking at a screen, and now orientation that includes a lot of activities on Zoom.

So I enjoyed talking face to face with them, or mask to mask, eight feet apart. I found it taxing to listen to someone that far away whose mouth is hidden by the masks they all dutifully wore. Nonetheless we had some great conversations that covered a lot of ground I’d expected and needed to cover (general education requirements, Carleton as an institution, Northfield as a place) as well some topics that gave me a better sense of them as people – G, who worries about finding enough time to pursue all of his interests; I, who wants to know the best restaurants in town; B, who has already planned out her major; and S, who wants to meet more people already!

All in all, the meetings were refreshing reminders of what Carleton is all about and that the kids are going to do pretty well despite the world we’ve forced them to live in.

But sill: it’s insane to me that everyone – today, literally every person on campus! – is wearing a mask. Disposable ones, Carleton-branded ones, fancy ones, plain ones, pattered ones, solid-colored ones. 2020: the year we couldn’t see anyone’s mouth, and learned to recognize each other by eyebrows and noses.

* After 14 years at Carleton, I feel like I can almost start calling them “kids,” but I remember feeling So Grown Up at 18…

Pandemic Restrooms

Every day, more signs, posters, flyers, reminders about pandemic health and safety appear around campus. At this rate, the restrooms in our office building will be wallpapered in signage by Halloween. Today’s addition to the door into the two-stall men’s room:

The commodes are new-ish, and there’s a touchless paper towel dispenser, but pretty much everything else appears to be original to the building. This wooden stalls create a look and feel that’s very Hogwarts – but the building went up in 1915, just before the Spanish flu pandemic. I wonder if the college put up posters to exhort masking and washing hands.