Observing Flora Near a Famous Norwegian Glacier

On a temperate afternoon last July, I arrived at a Norwegian National Park visitor center called the Breheimsenteret. Located in western Norway, the visitor center is often used as a meeting place for glacier walks, white water rafting, and glacial lake kayaking. Some visitors say that the exterior of the building resembles a giant Viking helmet, making it easy to spot. 

The Breheimsenteret is close in proximity to Jostedalsbreen, which is continental Europe’s largest glacier. Covering a total of 188 square miles, Jostedalsbreen is roughly 2.5 times the size of Washington, D.C. 

As I looked into the distance to the right of the visitor center, I noticed a steep mountain landscape featuring a magnificent, snaking portion of ice down its center. This piece of ice, or best-known as Nigardsbreen, is one of Jostedalsbreen’s most famous glacial arms. 

Nigardsbreen is easily accessible by car or on foot. There’s a narrow road, which begins near the visitor center and continues all the way near the glacier’s edge. 

On this sunny day, the stark contrast between the light-colored ice against the dark, grey-colored mountains and the green vegetation below was mesmerizing. At this moment, I decided I needed a closer view. I grabbed my camera and started walking.

The Road to Nigardsbreen 

Map lichen on a marble rock (Source: Maria Dombrov)

While walking along the road, I captured some images of the local flora. Because of my undergraduate degree in biology, I often take interest in understanding local ecosystems and species’ interactions. 

This particular mountain ecosystem has a lot to offer. To the left of the road, there’s lake Nigardsbrevatnet, and to the right, there’s a flourishing forest. As I walked along, I found a break in the trees and a short path that had full visibility of the glacier’s tongue. The tongue is the portion of the glacier that extends downward into the valley. 

A close up of Melancholy thistle (Source: Maria Dombrov)

During my short exploration of the mountain ecosystem, I came across an abundance of green-colored lichen growing on top of the rocks. Despite their simplistic appearance, lichen is the mutually beneficial relationship of a fungus and algae or cyanobacteria. 

While on the path, I stepped onto a small hill to get a few close-ups of Nigardsbreen. Cold winds were blowing from the glacier, making this vantage point particularly chilly.

I snapped a few photos, and then, I just stared at it for a bit. I was so used to seeing towering skyscrapers all around me in New York, but in this instance, I was fascinated by the change of scenery. 

Wild crowberries scattered in the landscape (Source: Maria Dombrov)

I also came across some wild crowberries growing along the rocks, which are edible berries. Crowberry shrubs can live up to 20 years and have the ability to grow in nutrient-poor locations. 

Additionally, I found colorful, flowering plants all over the place. Both melancholy thistle and goldenrod are native to Scandinavia. 

Sadly the closer I walked, the more I noticed how dirty the glacier appeared, which is often an indication of melting. 

Goldenrod along the road (Source: Maria Dombrov)

Now, it was time to rejoin society. I reached the car park at the end of the road.

Looking back on this experience, I’m thankful that I was able to see Nigardsbreen while it’s still easily visible from the road. And after this trip, I understand the added value in experiencing firsthand what I read and study. 

This post is the final in a series of posts about firsthand experiences visiting Norwegian glaciers, famous fjords, and well-known hiking destinations. Thanks for reading. 


Additional Reading on GlacierHub:

Annual Assessment of North Cascades Glaciers Finds ‘Shocking Loss’ of Volume

Roundup: Alpine Hydropower, Water Availability in Pakistan, and Measuring Black Carbon

Warming Rivers Are Causing Die-Offs Among Alaska Salmon

Rock Glaciers Help Protect Species in a Warmer Climate

Grasses and other plant species often thrive on the periphery of major glaciers on active rock periglaciers (Source: Savannah Theilbar).

In a recent study by Duccio Tampucci et al., rock glaciers in the Italian Alps have been shown to host a wide variety of flora and fauna, supporting plant and arthropod species during temporary decadal periods of climatic warming. Certain species that thrive in cold conditions have been prone to high environmental stress during warm climate stages in the past, but given the results of Tampucci’s research, it is now clear that these species may be able to survive in periglacial settings on the edge of existing glaciers.

One of many species of arthropods equipped to survive in cold temperatures on glacier surfaces. (Source: Rebecca Rendon).

Active rock glaciers, commonly found on the border of larger glaciers and ice sheets, are comprised of coarse debris with intermixed ice or an ice-core. The study has valuable implications on how organisms may respond to changes in temperature, offering a possible explanation for species’ resiliency.

Jonathan Anderson, a retired Glacier National Park ranger, spoke to GlacierHub about the importance of periglacial realms in providing a habitat for animals displaced by modern climate change. “In the years spent in and around the park, it’s clear that more and more animals are feeling the impact of climate change and global warming,” he said. “The areas surrounding the larger glaciers are becoming even more important than before and are now home to many of the species that lived on the receded glacier.”

In their study, Tampucci and team analyzed abiotic dimensions of active rock glaciers such as ground surface temperature, humidity and soil chemistry, as well as biotic factors related to the species abundance of plants and arthropods. This data was then compared to surrounding iceless regions characterized by large scree slopes (small loose stones covering mountain slopes) as an experimental control for the glaciated landforms of interest. Comparisons between these active scree slopes and rock glaciers revealed similar soil geochemistry, yet colder ground surface temperatures existed on the rocky glaciers. Thus, more cold-adapted species existed on rock glaciers.

The Ortles-Cevedale Massif where a large portion of Tampucci et al.’s study took place (Source: Parks.it).
The Ortles-Cevedale Massif where a large portion of Tampucci et al.’s study took place (Source: Parks.it).

The distribution of plant and arthropod species was found to be highly variable, dependent upon soil pH and the severity of mountain slope-instability. This variability is because the fraction of coarse debris and quantity of organic matter changes with the landform’s activity, or amount of mass wasting occurring downslope. The study notes that the heterogeneity in landforms in mountainous regions augments the overall biodiversity of the region.

Anderson affirmed this idea, noting, “The difference in habitats between glaciated terrain and the surrounding, more vegetated regions is crucial for allowing a wide range of animals to coexist.” This variety of landforms contributes to a wide variety of microclimates in which ecologically diverse organisms can reside in close proximity.

Cold-adapted species are likely the first to be affected by region-wide seasonal warming. As temperatures increase, cold-weather habitats are liable to reduce in size and shift to higher altitudinal belts, resulting in species reduction and possible extirpation. Tampucci et al.’s study affirmed the notion that active rock glaciers serve as refugia for cold-adapted species due to the landscape’s microclimate features.

A view of the shrinking alpine-glacial environment that many species call home (Source: Daniel Rojillo).

The local periglacial environment in the Italian Ortles-Cevedale Massif, for example, was shown to be decoupled from greater regional climate, with sufficient thermal inertia (resistance to temperature change) to support cold-adapted species on a decadal timescale.

Despite the conclusive findings that largely affirm previous assumptions about biodiversity in active rock glaciers, the authors carefully point out that the glacier’s ability to serve as refugia for certain species depends entirely on the length of the warm-climate stage, which can potentially last for millennia. Additionally, the macroclimatic context in which the glaciers reside is important and can influence the landform’s thermal inertia, affecting the temporal scale at which the landscape can shelter cold-climate plants and arthropods.

The ice crawler Grylloblatta campodeiformis is another example of a cold-adapted arthropod species (Source: Piotr Naskrecki).

The idea that certain periglacial regions may be the saving grace for small plants and animals is encouraging, yet these landforms fail to offer a permanent solution for conservation ecologists. Although active rock glaciers can harbor cold-adapted species for lengths of time, when an organism is forced to depend upon an alpine microclimate, it has become geographically isolated. In this scenario, the degree to which immediately surrounding terrain is inhospitable governs the species’ extinction risk.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that although certain species are adaptable and resilient, every organism has a limit,” Anderson told GlacierHub. “If the local climate continues to warm, these species will likely die in a few generations.” This means that although certain species of arthropods, for example, may be able to survive in undesirably warm conditions, this climatic shift still influences their long-term extinction risk.

While periglacial landforms may play a valuable role in protecting cold-adapted species in temporary periods of climatic warming, a large variety of external factors can influence the length of time an organism may survive in any given microclimate. The understanding that active-rock glaciers can effectively protect a range of plants and arthropods has valuable implications for conservation biologists and biogeographers, offering insight into possible explanations for cold-adapted species resiliency in historical episodes of climatic warming.