Canadian Scientists Revive ‘Little Ice Age’ Plant Frozen 400 Years Under Glacier Ice

Plants that were buried beneath glaciers in Canada more than 400 years ago, and were thought to have frozen to death, have been bought back to life by Canadian scientists.

Samples of the moss plant, covered by the glacier during the Little Ice Age of 1550 to 1850 AD, were replanted in a lab at the University of Alberta and grew new stems.

Researchers now think these findings could have implications on how regions across the arctic, and antarctic, could recover as the ice covering them melts.



The Little Ice Age was a period of cold and freezing temperatures that is thought to have cooled the Earth between 1550 and 1850 AD.

Scientists believe there were three main cold snaps, one beginning about 1650, another about 1770 and the last is thought to have occurred in 1850.

It is believed to have been caused by either a drop in solar radiation, volcanic activity, changes in the ocean circulation or drops in the human population.

The Little Ice Age brought colder winters to parts of Europe and North America.

Farms and villages in the Swiss Alps were destroyed by glaciers during the mid-17th century.

Canals and rivers in Great Britain and the Netherlands were frequently frozen deeply enough to support ice skating and winter festivals.

The first River Thames frost fair was in 1607 and the last in 1814.

During the Little Ice Age, the population of Iceland fell by half.

Moss found buried beneath the Teardrop glacier on Ellesmere Island in Canada has been revived by Canadian scientists

Findings suggest that regenerated plants could help repopulate regions exposed by melting ice caps

Biologist Dr Catherine La Farge and her team at the University of Alberta were exploring the region around the Teardrop glacier on Ellesmere Island in the Canadian arctic.

Glaciers in the Canadian arctic region have been melting at around four meters each year, for the past nine years.

This means that many areas of land that were previously covered by ice have since been exposed.

Many ecosystems that were thought to have been destroyed during the Little Ice Age, between 1550 and 1850 AD can now be studied.

Including many species that have never been studied before.

While inspecting an exposed area of land, La Farge and her team discovered a small patch of moss called Aulacomnium turgidum.

It is a type of bryophyte plant that mainly grows across Canada, the US, the highlands of Scotland.

Dr La Farge noticed that the moss had small patches of green stems, suggesting it was either growing again or could be encouraged to repopulate.

Dr La Farge told the BBC: ‘When we looked at them in detail and brought them to the lab, I could see some of the stems actually had new growth of green lateral branches, and that said to me that these guys are regenerating in the field, and that blew my mind.

‘If you think of ice sheets covering the landscape, we’ve always thought that plants have to come in from refugia around the margins of an ice system, never considering land plants as coming out from underneath a glacier.

‘It’s a whole world of what’s coming out from underneath the glaciers that really needs to be studied,’ Dr La Farge said.

‘The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast – they’re going to expose all this terrestrial vegetation, and that’s going to have a big impact.


‘The glaciers are disappearing pretty fast.

‘We really have not examined all the biological systems that exist in the world; we don’t know it all.’

Dr La Farge took samples of the moss and, using carbon dating, discovered that the plants date back around 400 years.

This is thought to have been around the time that the Little Ice Age froze many parts of the world between 1550 and 1850 AD.

Dr La Farge’s team took the samples, ground up stem and leaf tissue and and planted them in dishes full of nutrient-rich potting soil.

They fed the plants with water and managed to successfully grow 11 cultures from seven samples.

The samples were from four separate species including Aulacomnium turgidum, Distichium capillaceum, Encalypta procera and Syntrichia ruralis.

The moss plants found are types of byrophytes.

Bryophytes can survive long winters and regrow when the weather gets warmer.

However, Dr La Farge was surprised the plants had survived buried under ice for such a long period of time.

La Farge’s findings appear in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.