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How realistic is it that in the future someone invents plants that can live on top of the Antarctic ice sheet or are floating on ice like in the Arctic?

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    $\begingroup$ Look at lichens or moss for inspiration. Flowering plants on an ice sheet are probably a no-go due to the lack of nutrients. $\endgroup$ – John Dvorak Jun 13 '17 at 6:43
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    $\begingroup$ Plants need three things: Energy (usually sunlight), water and nutrients. You need some mechanism to get nutrients onto the ice sheet if you want to have plants growing on it. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jun 13 '17 at 7:00
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    $\begingroup$ @Rekesoft I think it's a bit sketchy for an answer, and I don't have references to elaborate on it. $\endgroup$ – Mike Scott Jun 13 '17 at 7:44
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    $\begingroup$ Shouldn't this be reality-check? $\endgroup$ – Mołot Jun 13 '17 at 8:12
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    $\begingroup$ In the future = later today or in a million years? Please be aware that nobody wants to do this. Currently, Antarctica is seen as the last wild landscape on earth. This is something that needs to be protected and not filled with plants. So if you want future = within the next decades - unlikely $\endgroup$ – Raditz_35 Jun 13 '17 at 8:28
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Ice sheet as found in Arctic and in Antarctic is basically solid water with some dust particle. Not enough to sustain anything bigger than a monocellular organism (sometimes there are massive algae efflorescence like the one in this picture: enter image description here

resulting in colored ice on alpine glaciers, which can rely on more substantial dust deposition from closeby regions).

If you have some rocks exposed to air and light you can at least support lichens or moss, like here:

enter image description here

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  • $\begingroup$ I was going to present this answer but here it is. So add in some images of those colored snowfields, Dutch! Algae is at its essence a monocellular organism but they can team up to make immense structures such as kelp. $\endgroup$ – Willk Jun 13 '17 at 14:49
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    $\begingroup$ @Will, pictures added $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 13 '17 at 15:12
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The biggest problem to overcome would be water, ironically. Arctic and Antarctic plants do exist, but they have deep root systems that burrow down below the permafrost to where they can get liquid water. One way would be roots that were dark, even black to absorb enough heat to melt the ice just enough to extract water.

Failing that, your plants would need to have some system where they could grab moisture from the air through the sublimation of the ice as opposed to the usual transpiration that an arctic plant would use. Your plants would also likely need to be carnivorous, as nutrients would be hard to come by on the ice, even if a root system could extract anything. I would imagine they'd need a good way to go dormant as well to allow for periods between feeding and/or periods without sunlight.

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  • $\begingroup$ The plant could have mechanism to melt ice. Just warm it up a bit. Plants usually naturally produce some heat, so you often can see snow melted around trees. $\endgroup$ – Anixx Jun 13 '17 at 13:24
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx - but in Antarctic, where that energy would come from? $\endgroup$ – Alexander Jun 13 '17 at 16:40
  • $\begingroup$ @Anixx Assuming an earth-like planet, you'd have several months of continuing sunlight followed by darkness. A dormancy period could handle the dart times, and there would be energy during the light times. $\endgroup$ – Richard U Jun 13 '17 at 17:51
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While I don't believe there would be any way that a plant could grow from ice, there may be some possibility for some sort of small harvester insect to live that shapes the ice around it in such a way that it is exposed to the sun (and algae can live on top), and the insect simply survives off the algae. We could elaborate further and say the ice is shaped into dome-like forms to intensify the sun's rays heating further the water. You can then imagine thousands of green ice balls scattered across the landscape. It would not have a natural predator, so assuming it could survive in the harsh environment, it would thrive as well.

Edited: The algae would require minerals of course, but these are common in glaciers scraped off from rocks.

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  • $\begingroup$ So where does that algae get its sustainance? As other answers point out, it needs sun, water, air, and other minerals and organic matter. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 13 '17 at 10:50
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz There are minerals in glacial water that come from rocks that have been scraped away. Lichen can live just fine off the nutrients that come from a rock. I don't think it's so far fetched. $\endgroup$ – Neil Jun 13 '17 at 12:35
  • $\begingroup$ That needs to be (a significant) part of your answer! So, it would only live where such mineral is available on the surface m that needs elaborating too, as the top of the ice sheet is fallen snow and it's the bottom where the minerqls are scraped. Meltwater comes along the bottom out to you, so it's in the spring water. But how does that help the algae? $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 13 '17 at 12:39
  • $\begingroup$ @JDługosz Not sure I understand that last part. The algae just grows because it's receiving sunlight as it would naturally. The insect would carry with it a small colony of algae on its back that it would consequently use to create its eventual food source after the eggs hatch and the newborn harvester insects find new nests. $\endgroup$ – Neil Jun 13 '17 at 12:48
  • $\begingroup$ To review:algae neede sunlight, air, water, and other material. Without dirt it can’t grow. Re your edit: the scraping is at the base of the glacier. The top is pure water from snowfall; no minerals there. $\endgroup$ – JDługosz Jun 13 '17 at 12:57
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I'm going to preface this by saying that I am by no means a botanist, however, you said invent, not "would a plant naturally develop." Humans are very adaptable. If we were told there were the world's largest deposits of platinum, gold, oil, etc in the antarctic, and all that was needed was to grow plants there, the antarctic would look like a rain forest in a heartbeat. If all that's needed is nutrients, then couldn't the inventor also invent the nutrients or a method to get them to the plants? The ocean is full of nutrients, so maybe these plants live on the coastline. According to a quick wikipedia search there are many mosses and lichens. Could those be used? If you are writing a fiction story, I don't think it's too far out there, if you can also solve the nutrient issues stated above, but I think you would also need sufficient motivation.

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Trees that remain green in temperate zones that freeze in winter, can do so because they have roots deep enough to reach unfrozen water, and they also have anti-freeze in their sap. Pine and cedar trees get their distinct smell from the turpentine that keeps their sap from freezing.

Without that anti-freeze, the sap would freeze, expand, and crack the trunk and limbs of the tree apart.

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