Frigid and Flourishing: Life in the Snowscape

Ice_Caitlyn_Wynne

It’s now January, which means that up here in the Northern Hemisphere, it is, generally speaking, the coldest time of year. The days are still short, barely rounding the bend from their shortest point on the solstice, and the sun cuts a tentative, shallow angle across bleak, sleepy skies, darting back under the horizon almost as soon as it emerged, as if it was trying to escape the nippy atmosphere and curl up under the warm cover of night.

The arrival into this annual temperature trough is sitting prominently in my mind these days for a variety of reasons:

  1. My beloved Seattle Seahawks, just this weekend, made a miraculous win in Minnesota, despite enduring the full, sub-zero fury of the Gopher State, with windchill reaching a lung-punching 20-below, making it the third coldest NFL game ever.
  2. The armed, self-described “militia” yokels currently more than a week and a half into squatting in the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge headquarters in my homeland of Oregon do so in a region of the state that suffers the most harrowing winter temperatures. A week ago, nighttime lows plummeted to 18-below (cold enough to turn the occupiers into Skoal-and-jerky flavored popsicles), and it hasn’t risen much since then, and won’t until March. There’s been some talk of cutting the power to the headquarters building, and simply waiting for the unyielding, unmitigated harshness of a high-desert January to bludgeon the everloving shit out of their seditionist tantrum.
  3. I recently returned from a trip to Washington’s Olympic Peninsula to visit family for the holidays, during one of the most anomalously snowy and cold weeks of the year, with the snowline slumping down nearly to sea level, invading rainforest river valleys that are almost guaranteed snow-free throughout the winter. My soft, Hawaii-resident body whined in the face of 25 degree temperatures, atypical for a comparatively mild area of coastal Washington.


Behold, nearby Mt. Baker, one of the snowiest places on planet Earth. If winter itself had its own mountain, this would be it.

Photo: Jake Buehler

Even back in my normally balmy Hawaiian Islands, it’s now cold. And by “cold” I mean that I occasionally get the shivers waking up early in the morning with the windows open, and I don’t become a sweat-slicked heap of misery and heat exhaustion when just sitting in my home office. Basically, “cold” in Honolulu is when daytime highs top out short of 80 degrees Fahrenheit.

We tend to think these cold conditions, whether they are just a seasonal inconvenience, or a year-round way of life (like up near the poles), as being particularly insufferable for life. When the landscape is buried under five feet of Winnipeg white, the ecosystem functions very differently. Vegetation isn’t accessible to many herbivores. Predators have a minuscule pool of animals to hunt. The temperatures are too low for “cold-blooded” animals like amphibians and reptiles to stay active. Plant growth grinds to a crawl. Everything trying to scrape by in the frozen stillness seems to either be on the verge of starving or freezing to death.

The truth is, however, that while many organisms make a great effort to put up with or evade (ala songbirds flying towards the equator for winter, or mammals that hibernate) freezing temperatures…there are a minority that have embraced these glacial surroundings. Organisms that have evolved extreme levels of cold-tolerance sit at the lower boundary of what is possible for life to persist. Because of them, the coldest parts of our planet actually teem with life, even if it doesn’t appear that way during on initial impressions.

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Bioluminescence

Bioluminescence.

One of the more intriguing (at least to me), and beautiful quirks about the evolution of life on this planet is the repeated development of bioluminescence across many different lineages. Bioluminescence is simply the ability of a living organism to produce light. If it’s alive and luminescing, boom, you’ve got an example of a complex chemical cascade that allows sacks of meat not so different from ourselves to light up like a goddamned Christmas tree. Essentially, what is happening with bioluminescence is a highly controlled chemical reaction that releases energy in the form of light emission. This can be done by the beastie itself, or by a symbiotic microorganism that has been acquired by a larger creature. It occurs in multiple kingdoms of life, in terrestrial and marine environments. If I so desired, I could ruminate tearfully on how all of Earth’s life is chemically derived from components forged in a star in a Saganesque exposition of cosmic perspective…and how in some small way, bioluminescence is the means by which stardust can light the darkness of the universe once again. But, heavy-hearted sighs and poetic attribution of consciousness to a mechanically elegant and indifferent universe are for another day, and if done in all seriousness, for another person.

The thing about bioluminescence is that often our understanding of it is limited to a few well-known examples, and without any sort of context, biological or otherwise, other than ‘that is pretty; I like it.’ And while yes, indeed, fireflies and deep-sea fish do have a magical and/or alien quality to them, there is a whole world of bioluminescing organisms that go unloved and underappreciated and denied all the badass reasons for and applications of their abilities. Bioluminescence has evolved many times, and therefore, each example tends to have its own unique story.

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