For almost half the year Svalbard is hidden from the sun’s light by the tilt of the Earth, making it a frozen kingdom existing in a state of perpetual darkness. But with the arrival of spring it once again becomes bathed in progressively more glorious light, until midsummer will see the sun permanently above the horizon.
Surviving these extreme seasonal swings is tough, yet the compass plant (Silene acaulis) somehow manages to make life up here look positively rosy.
Clip taken from new series 'Earth's Greatest Spectacles', currently airing on BBC Two.
A BBC film crew worked alongside Norwegian scientist and alpine plant specialist, Pernille Bronken Eidesen, who has been studying the sunshine secrets of this Arctic connoisseur. Speaking to BBC Earth, she explains that shape and form is the best way to cope with a potentially lethal cocktail of winds of unimaginable force, blistering cold, and lack of nutrients.
"[They] grow in very dense cushioned domes which form to trap and retain the heat," Bronken Eidesen explains. On sunny days, despite the air temperature hovering around little more than freezing, she recorded the centre of these domes reaching a scorching 30°C.
This cushion shape not only raises the plant’s internal temperature but also increases flowering time, which is highly beneficial in a landscape where pollinators are so scarce. As the sun circles the horizon, its intensity will inevitably vary, causing the dome to be heated unevenly. Bronken Eidesen explains, "The accumulative heat is much higher on the side of the cushion facing south compared to that on the north, so although each flower only blooms for a week, the whole plant will end up flowering for a month."
This tidal eruption of blooms from south to north caught the eye of ancient explorers who used it to find their way using them just like a compass, hence their name.
The cushion also provides the solution to the problem of low nutrients. "This growth form ensures the plant retains its dead leaves inside the cushion, so it can effectively ‘compost’ its own soil," she explains.
Not only can these plants flourish and flower in such extreme conditions, but they are also capable of living to a ripe old age. Longevity is a common feature of Arctic plants, Bronken Eidesen explains, since "the growing season here is immeasurably short and unpredictable". Compass plants are capable of reaching 300 years of age, meaning some specimens growing in Svalbard today were little more than maturing seedlings whilst Britain was under the reign of King George II in the early 18th Century.
"To maintain a population, each individual only has to replace itself, so as long as during your lifetime you manage to produce just one seed that will survive long enough to reproduce again, you have done the job, so to speak," Bronken Eidesen explains.
As the flower petals fade, the seed pods will then mature in the protective warmth of the cushion. Once ripe however, the elderly stems of the flowers will then elongate, causing the seeds to be thrown up to the mercy of the relentless Arctic wind.
As the tiny seeds are then blasted from their capsules, this will enable them to be scattered into the Arctic wilderness. In a place that can take three centuries' worth of flowering to produce an heir, tenacity is the compass plant’s real secret weapon.
UK viewers can discover more about Svalbard's amazing arctic wildlife by clicking here to watch 'Earth’s Greatest Spectacles' on iPlayer.
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