While exploring Greenland on Nat Hab’s East Greenland Arctic Safari, you are constantly surrounded by rugged grandeur. Raw granite peaks tower over winding fjords. The world’s second-largest ice sheet looms as a presence over everything, a 2-mile-thick blanket so heavy that it pushes the land in the center of the island 1,800 feet below sea level. The blue whale, the largest animal ever to exist on earth, plies these cold, arctic seas.

While these dramatic features will scream out for your attention, if you tear your eyes away for a moment and look down, you will find that you are surrounded by more delicate wonders that whisper to you as well. Somehow, against all odds, the living fringe of this icebound land is covered in a colorful old-growth forest of wildflowers just a few inches tall.

“If you get lost in the woods, stand up.”

Trees are not able to grow here due to the shallow soil–just a matter of inches in some places before you hit the permafrost below–and the short growing season that prevents the energy-intensive process of developing wood. For a plant to survive and pass on its genes in the arctic, it must put all its energy into leaves, roots, flowers and seeds. Even the willows in Greenland creep along the ground, growing horizontally instead of vertically.

This lack of trees allows wildflowers, mosses, lichens and clubmosses to dominate. Although there is lower diversity of plants this far north, each individual species is found in abundance. The lack of diversity can be explained both by the harsh environment and the fact that this is the youngest ecosystem on earth. Greenland was scraped to bare rock during the last ice age, so life on land here is only 10,000 years old and hasn’t had much time for the diversity that exists elsewhere to evolve.

Many of the arctic wildflowers you will see in Greenland are miniaturized versions of plants you might see around your own home, but they display a number of clever adaptations to survive in this extreme environment.

Arctic Flowers in a green field in Iceland.

© John Holahan

Arctic wildflowers need a head-start

Most of the wildflowers you will find in Greenland are hardy perennials. Annuals simply don’t have time to germinate, grow, develop flowers and put on new seed in the short, 50-60 day growing season in this land that straddles the Arctic Circle. Some wildflowers in the Arctic take four years to fully develop leaves, stems and reproductive organs.

Many of these plants begin photosynthesizing while they are still buried in a layer of snow, giving them a jump on species that are less well adapted. There are risks to this early start, though. If a plant flowers too early in an unseasonably cold year, its flowers may have come and gone before any pollinators are around.

To mitigate this risk, many flowering plants do not rely exclusively on sexual reproduction and pollinators. While they usually do produce seeds or berries, they do not put all their eggs in one basket. If you dig into the soil, you will find networks of rhizomes. These are underground shoots that are similar to underground roots, but they send up new plants not far from the parent. This is why arctic wildflowers are often found in dense mats of the same species and why there is sometimes more biomass below ground than above.

Another strategy is to reproduce with bulbils. These are small bulbs that grow at the base of leaves near the stem or in place of the flower that can fall off and develop into new plants.

Arctic Cotton grass

© Kendal Bower

How low can you grow?

Desiccating winds are a constant threat to plants in the arctic. To survive, they need strategies to protect themselves from these cold blasts that may also carry damaging ice shards.

Most wildflowers grow in dense mats, low to the ground. By huddling together, they create a miniature microclimate that is warmer and that slows the wind. The temperature near the ground can also be nearly 50 degrees warmer than the air just a foot higher.

If you look closely, you will also see tiny hairs on the leaves, stems, and seed pods of many plants. These hairs slow the wind and keep the plant warmer and more hydrated. Tiny, waxy leaves also slow the loss of moisture, so plants here will generally have smaller leaves than their southern relatives.

Arctic wildflowers also take advantage of any shelter they can find. The tundra is littered with rocks that have been pushed above the surface through the annual freeze-and-thaw cycle. These rocks offer sanctuaries that block the wind and radiate warmth to help new plants take root.

Arctic wild flowers on a rock with a horizon view of a sunset.

© Sara Higgins

Arctic wildflowers and climate change 

Arctic tundra is one of the world’s great “carbon sinks.” In most ecosystems, when plants die, they decay and release their carbon back into the air. Because of the freezing, dry conditions here, dead plants don’t decompose. Plant parts that are thousands of years old can be found in the permafrost layer below the active soil. Some studies have estimated that up to 50% of the world’s soil carbon is stored in permafrost. Global warming is already leading to melting in some areas that is allowing this carbon to decompose.

Compounding this issue is a measurable change to Arctic plants. Polar regions are warming at four times the rate of the rest of the planet. One result is that plants here are starting to grow taller, and woody shrubs like dwarf birch are beginning to replace low-growing tundra plants in some areas. These taller and bushier plants trap more snow, insulating the ground from the cold air above.

Taller shrubs also stick out above the snow and decrease the “albedo”–the amount of sunlight reflected away by the snow and ice. Darker surfaces like those of plants absorb heat rather than reflecting it away, increasing the overall temperature.

The Arctic is a dynamic place

While this land of impregnable rock and ponderous ice might seem like the most permanent thing you have ever seen, the Arctic is a dynamic and constantly changing place. The ice that seems so solid flows like rivers down to the fjords below, where it breaks into sailing sculptures and floating skyscrapers. Changing ice conditions are altering cultures and survival techniques that have allowed Greenlanders to thrive in this harsh land for millennia. And delicate Arctic wildflowers are waging a quiet battle against woody shrubs that are marching north.

Greenland is on the front lines of climate change. Visiting Nat Hab’s Greenland Base Camp, tucked below the second-largest ice sheet in the world, gives you an intimate look into the processes of change that are both fascinating and disquieting.

Arctic Willow herb

© Melissa Scott