Life on the Polar Ice Caps

Life on the Polar Ice Caps

Polar ice caps are sheets of large masses of ice having the shape of a dome and mainly found near the South and North Poles that is the Antarctic and Arctic respectively. The formation of these biomes is as a result of the minimal heating that high altitude polar regions receive from the sun. Normally, the average temperatures at these poles are very cold due to these conditions. Despite the harsh conditions in the regions, there is still presence of life as witnessed by the many plants and animals that thrive in these areas. Moreover, the polar ice caps have the largest supply of freshwater on earth at almost 99% of the total freshwater in the world. Scientists have estimated that the South Pole boasts of about 70% of the total supply of freshwater in the world (Starr et al., pp 68).

Despite having shrunk over the last decades, the Northern and Southern Polar Ice Caps are still extensive in size. The current area covered by the Polar Regions is significantly lower than the area they covered during the ice age time. In fact, the Antarctic ice sheet is approximately the combined size of Mexico and the US at 14 million square kilometers. On that large span, 30 million cubic kilometers are covered in ice, although the figure has decreased over time. The Arctic Polar Ice cap is not as large as the Antarctic but it still boasts a remarkable 10 million square kilometers of ice which equates to three times the area covered by Texas. Despite having the least population and having the most dense population patterns, the Polar Regions have interesting features that make them a habitable place for both plants and animals.

The climate in the Polar Regions is known as ice cap climate and the temperatures in these climates never exceed 0oC. Due to the cold temperatures, the ice cap climate can be described as somewhat ‘summer-less’. The average yearly temperatures fall at -17oC that is quite low.  The areas exhibiting this climate have a permanent layer of ice covering them and there is no vegetation that can be supported on the mainland. As thus, most of the animal life that thrives in these climates depends on the ocean for their daily supply of food and nutrients. The ice cap climate is the coldest due to the constant freezing temperatures that lead to the development of large ice sheets. The high reflective surface does not help matters either and is the cause of the low solar insolation as most of the sun’s radiations are reflected away (Irving, pp 42).

Precipitation is almost unheard of in these climates since the temperatures are too low to support any rainfall. One would be deceived to believe that the large accumulation of ice would result in fairly higher precipitation level. The low temperature is an inhibiting factor to precipitation as it creates fewer dew points and thereby lowering the volume of moisture available in the air at saturation. Moreover, the lack of low-level inversions also inhibits the amount of precipitation experienced. However, wind may occasionally blow snow to the ice sheets from the neighboring tundra.

The low heating from the sun give the Polar Regions a uniquely cold temperature than most of the other regions on earth. In addition the rate of rainfall is almost zero and the only form of precipitation involves the fall of snow. Regardless of the lack of sunlight, the ecosystems are highly productive and are fueled by the activity of microscopic algae that are the primary producers. The algae live in the water column and on the sea ice that are mostly frozen. During the spring when the sun rises higher in the sky, enough energy is transmitted through the ice allowing the algae to grow. Ultimately, the ice begins to warm thus releasing algae into the water column. The algae are a rich source of food for the animals including the walruses, gray whales and the diving ducks. Afterwards, when most of the ice has melted, phytoplanktons take over and use all the available nutrients for production. The phytoplanktons in turn provide food for such zooplanktons as copepods and krill. These animals are in turn eaten away by birds and fish and then the latter provide a source of food for whales and seals (Nelson, pp 83).

The ice caps do have seasons but extreme ones due to the fact that the caps are located at the poles. The traditional summer season is not experienced in the ice caps because of the below-freezing level temperatures that occasion these regions. Nevertheless, the polar ice caps do receive two extreme seasons that are determined by the amount of light experienced. At one time, the pole is pointed towards the sun therefore receiving sunlight for an almost entire 24-hour day. This season has characteristics almost similar to those of the summer, only that the ice still does not melt. At the other extreme time, the poles are facing away from the sun and end up receiving almost no single hour of sunlight in a day. The outcome is a 24 hours of darkness in a day, a season that can be referred to as the ‘winter’.

Due to the lack of exposed soil, plants cannot take root and this renders the biomes devoid of any biological community on the mainland. The only biological communities are those of the algae in the snow and the insects that eat the algae. Life on the polar ice caps is restricted to the near shore because most food resources and nutrients are abundant in the ocean. In the ice polar caps, most traditional plants do not grow due to the harshness of the climatic conditions. There are no higher plants as thus, save for some algae that may grow in the snow giving it a pinkish color. However, despite the harsh conditions, some areas do support plant life including moss and lichen (Starr, pp 71). The latter is a mixture of algae and fungus. Regardless of the foregoing, there is still an existence of plants in the polar ice caps albeit in smaller abundance. Some of the plants that are in some cases found in these biomes include the arctic poppy, wildflowers, mosses and grasses. In addition, lichens, mosses and the arctic lupine are a common occurrence.

Most people are accustomed to associating penguins with the south pole and polar bears with the north pole. However, there are other very many animals that are adapted to these harsh environments. For instance, many birds including the Albatross continuously make random stops in these regions mainly in search of food. Other animals include the seals which are perfectly adapted for survival in the ice cap climate.

Animals found in the polar icecaps have unique adaptations that enable them to exist in these conditions. One example is the polar bear, Ursus maritimus, which is mostly found in the North Pole of the Arctic. The polar bears feed on seals and can be found roaming both the ocean and the main land in search of the seals. They have large and partly webbed paws with thick fur that makes them adept predators both on the freezing land and in the frigid sea. Moreover, the bears are strong swimmers and can cover hundreds of miles and still be able to stalk thin ice that seals use for their breathing. The bright fur that covers the polar bears’ bodies is enough camouflage that enhances their stealth. Another advantage is in the fact that there are no other predators that prey on the bear thereby making it the queen of the arctic.

The seal, which is the bear’s favorite prey, inhabit both the ice caps and the surrounding waters. These animals spend most of their time underneath the ice caps in search of arctic cod, mollusks and crustaceans that together form a large share of their food. The Weddell seal is conspicuous for its behavior of not migrating and instead living near ice caps throughout the year. The animals create breathing holes in thin ice using their sharp teeth for access to air while they are beneath the ice caps. The relatively heavy weight is an inhibition to their movement on land and is perhaps the reason why they opt to stay deep beneath the ice caps to avoid predation by the polar bears. However, the animals are quite fast in water and can swim for speeds of up to 6 knots. Moreover, the seals can stay in water for up to sixty minutes at depths of 2000 feet.

The penguins are very common in the Polar Regions and particularly in the Antarctica. They are excellent swimmers and at the same time flightless despite being birds. Their webbed feet are essential for powerful swimming and their streamlined bodies ensure that minimum drag is achieved while in water. Their wings act as flippers that aid their swimming underneath the water achieving speeds of up to 15 miles per hour. The animals have thick skins which accumulate lots of fat underneath their skin to keep warm. Moreover, they have a behavior of huddling together to fight the cold. In addition to penguins, there is a vast array of birds that live in the ice caps and most during the warmer months. The raven, Corvus corax, is a scavenger bird and feeds on literally anything it can find including other birds, worms, grains, insects and rodents. In addition, it can feed on carcasses and small insects near the ice caps.

In the oceans, the Arctic and the Antarctic, whales dominate the habitats including the beluga and orcas species. The Belugas, Delphinapterus leucas, uses suction method to catch prey that they swallow whole. They are highly social and can be seen playing with plants, air bubbles and even dead fish underneath the water. They mainly feed on diet consisting of flounder, salmon, squid, octopus, shrimp and sculpins among many other vertebrates. Other animals in the polar ice caps include the ptarmigans and snowy owls that migrate to the ice caps occasionally during the warmer summer seasons.

The polar ice caps, despite having extreme climatic conditions have a rich source of flora and fauna. The living organisms supported by these climates are well adapted for the life in such conditions. The biomes are very important in maintaining the natural balance of life because of their abundant fresh water supply. The ice sheets are also important in storing part of the ‘excess’ water from the seas and oceans. In fact, if the ice caps were to melt, there would be an increase of more than 70 meters in sea level. The effects of this increase could spell doom for the world as many cities would end up being submerged in water. The stability of these biomes is therefore necessary not just for the maintenance of the species living there but for the sustainability of mankind.

Fig 1: Beluga whale

Fig 2: Polar bear

Fig 3: Penguin

Fig 4: Arctic poppies


Works cited

Starr, Cecie, Ralph Taggart, Christine Evers, and Lisa Starr. Ecology and Behavior. 12th Ed ed. Princeton, N.J.: Brooks/Cole, Cengage Learning, 2009. Print.

Irving, Laurence. Arctic Life of Birds and Mammals: Including Man. Berlin, Heidelberg: Springer Berlin Heidelberg, 1972. Internet resource.

Nelson, John. Polar Ice Caps in Danger: Expedition to Antarctica. New York: PowerKids Press, 2009. Print.

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