“Polar desert” is the term that characterizes most of the landscape of Axel Heiberg. The island gets very little precipitation, the humidity of the air is very low, and there isn’t much groundwater available to plant or animal life. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are very much a polar desert as well, however there are vast differences between the two locations.
Green. Axel Heiberg is astoundingly green despite the polar desert definition. Plant life covers many of the valleys and the soils can support large moss communities where snow and glacial melt water collect. There are a number of gorgeous flowering species of plants and even a rather edible item called Mountain Sorrel that’s taste is quite similar to rhubarb. Despite this relative abundance of plant life (roughly 170 different vascular plant species on Axel) it’s all quite small in stature and grows very slowly due to the harsh climate and incredibly short growing season. A prime example of this is the incredible Arctic Willow. Existing far above the tree line, it is the northernmost woody plant in the world and lives happily around Arctic Canada and Greenland. The higher in the Arctic the shorter the plant, on Axel it only grows to around 10cm in height and it serves as food for the roaming muskox, caribou, and hare. This brings me to the second major difference:
Animals. Axel is rich in animal life when compared to the Dry Valleys. I saw one bird in three months down there and I nearly had a heart attack in excitement. In my first week on Axel I’ve come across herds of both caribou and muskox, and have seen both the before and after effects of wolves on the Arctic Hare. Wolves are relatively common but the largest land carnivore in the world, the polar bear, is also known to occasionally traipse through the island. Although sighting one is rare we do carry protection in the event that one decides to become confrontational. So while the weather and one’s own (lack of) judgment are the major safety concerns in the Antarctic, the Arctic has the added concern of wildlife to deal with.
Having gone from 77º S to 79º N in such a short space of time has given me an opportunity to compare the two landscapes on a very informal level. Being able to fly over mountain ranges by helicopter gives a wide aerial perspective to witness the effects of glaciers and ice on topography, while hiking to the different study sites provides an up-close and visceral experience. But of all the readily apparent differences I’ve noticed between the two polar landscapes, telling the time of day has been the most subtle change to cause me the most confusion: the 24-hour sun rotates clockwise in the Arctic and counterclockwise in the Antarctic.