Antarctic flowering plants warm to climate change

The first issue of a new journal in the prestigious Nature series, Nature Climate Change (issue 1; April 2011) highlights how one plant species in the Antarctic appears to be taking advantage of climate change.

Bangor University scientist and the paper’s lead author, Dr Paul Hill explains: “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 centre of the continent, the snow melts and many areas become green with mosses and two species of native flowering plant. 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.”


A team of UK and Australian scientists led by Professor Davey Jones of Bangor University’s School of the Environment, Natural Resources and Geography may have discovered the secret to the success of this plant. The team carried out research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council in collaboration with British Antarctic Survey at its Signy Research Station in the Southern Orkneys. Signy is an isolated island that has a well-established record of climatic warming over the last 50 years.

Prof Davey Jones explains: “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”.

Professor Jones’ team made the discovery that Antarctic Hairgrass can use its roots to access this nitrogen much more efficiently than has previously been shown in plants. Consequently, in the struggle to find the nutrients needed to exploit the sunlight of the brief Antarctic summer, this grass has a key advantage over the mosses, with which it competes for resources. However, Professor Jones concedes that it may be some time before Antarctic bases need to invest in lawnmowers.

These findings show that some plants use nitrogen in a form that has not previously been recognised as important. Consequently, they also have significant implications for the sustainable management of agricultural and natural ecosystems in many other parts of the world. The discovery of a new cog in the terrestrial nitrogen cycle should help us to use fertilisers more efficiently and to better understand the implications of anthropogenic nitrogen pollution and ecosystem responses to climate change.

Further information: Dr Paul Hill, School of Environment, Natural Resources & Geography, Bangor University, 01248 382545  e mail Editor’s Notes:

“Vascular plant success in a warming Antarctic may be due to efficient nitrogen acquisition” by  is  published in Nature Nature Climate Change on 29 March  at 1000 London time / 0500 US Eastern time

The full listing of authors and their affiliations for this paper is as follows: PaulW. Hill1*, John Farrar1, Paula Roberts1, Mark Farrell1,2(, Helen Grant3, Kevin K. Newsham4, DavidW. Hopkins5,6(, Richard D. Bardgett2 and Davey L. Jones 1Environment CentreWales, Bangor University, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 2UW, UK, 2Soil and Ecosystem Ecology, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster University, Lancaster LA1 4YQ, UK, 3Life Sciences Mass Spectrometry Facility, Lancaster Environment Centre, Lancaster LA1 4AP, UK, 4Ecosystems Programme, British Antarctic Survey, Natural Environment Research Council, High Cross, Madingley Road, Cambridge CB3 OET, UK, 5Scottish Crop Research Institute, Invergowrie, Dundee DD2 5DA, UK, 6School of Biological and Environmental Sciences, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA, UK.(Present address: CSIRO Land andWater, PMB2, Glen Osmond, SA, 5064, Australia (M.F.); School of Life Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Riccarton, Edinburgh EH14 4AS, UK (D.W.H.).

This work was funded by UK Natural Environment Research Council grant AFI8/08. It is available here after publication 10.1038/NCLIMATE1060.

Bangor University has a long record of academic excellence. It currently has 11,000 students and offers 500 degree programmes, with particular strengths in the fields of Environmental Science (including Ocean Sciences), Health (including Psychology, Neuroscience and Sports Science), Humanities, Physical Sciences, Business, Law, Social Sciences and Education. It is a research-led university, and the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise demonstrated that it had ‘world-leading’ research in every subject area assessed. With 2,000 members of staff, Bangor University is a major employer in North Wales and a leading contributor to the regional economy. 

British Antarctic Survey (BAS), a component of the Natural Environment Research Council, delivers world-leading interdisciplinary research in the Polar Regions.   Its skilled science and support staff based in Cambridge, Antarctica and the Arctic, work together to deliver research that underpins a productive economy and contributes to a sustainable world.   Its numerous national and international collaborations, leadership role in Antarctic affairs and excellent infrastructure help ensure that the UK maintains a world leading position.  BAS has over 450 staff and operates five research stations, two Royal Research Ships and five aircraft in and around Antarctica.


Publication date: 29 March 2011