Iceland: Where Hay Grows alongside Arctic Plants

A map showing the expedition itinerary.

The expedition itinerary. Image: © Students on Ice

So we all loaded up and into the buses to Toronto for our overnight flight to Iceland. This is my third trip with Students on Ice, and this time we are travelling to Iceland, Greenland and the Torngat Mountains of Labrador. I am the botanist for the trip, and one of a bevy of scientists, artists, musicians, Inuit elders and even policy makers. We’re here to inspire the 70+ students from around the world as we explain the problems and challenges that face the Arctic during this period of cultural, political and environmental change.

Going to Iceland is a bit like going home. I’m from Manitoba, Canada, where the largest Icelandic community outside of Iceland is found in Gimli—a town I would often visit as a kid, either for camping and the beach, or for the annual Icelandic festival in the summer. (It has a long name that I daren’t try to pronounce or spell).

As I quickly found out when we arrived, this is a really strange place for an Arctic botanist. You can see extremely typical Arctic plants such as crowberry (Empetrum nigrum) and the sedge Kobresia myosuroides growing on opposite sites of a fence surrounding a relatively productive hay field. We may be far north, but warm ocean water from Gulf Stream currents make the climate unusually warm for such latitude. And, because of the volcanic soils that make up the entire island, you see a strange mix of Arctic and temperate plants that is uncommon.

A man and two teenage girls talk, on their knees on the ground in Iceland.

Here I am with two keen young botanists—Bo Yeon Jang from Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and Isabella Bruce from Rankin Inlet, Nunavut, Canada. I'm explaining how and why the common butterwort (Pinguicula vulgaris) digests the animals it catches on its leaves. Plants that live in acidic soils, and in this case, cold acidic soils, have difficulty getting nitrogen—an essential element in the production of proteins—because the bacteria that make atmospheric nitrogen available in the soil have difficulty living under such conditions. The leaves of the plant are covered with small glandular hairs that quickly overwhelm small mites and flies that are attracted to what may seem like a possible food reward. Once the animal is caught, the plant slowly extracts the precious element it needs from its prey, thus successfully compensating for what it lacks from the soil. Image: Lee Narraway © Lee Narraway/Students on Ice

We are now travelling through the Denmark Strait on our way to Greenland, and off the port bow, Richard Sears, our whale specialist, has sighted a blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus). It’s all hands on deck and the camera shutters are a-clicking madly. I may be a botanist, but it’s hard not to be impressed by blue whales!

Next stop is Greenland and all the wonders that this near-mythical place holds: Vikings, glaciers and the greatest ice cap north of Antarctica—one can only imagine what we will experience next!

Editor’s Note: For those who are interested, the festival that Julian mentions is called Islendingadagurinn. The 122nd annual celebration just finished in Gimli, Manitoba.

This entry was posted in Arctic, Fieldwork, Plants and Algae and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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