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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: March 2011

11 - Glaciers and wildlife


Surprising as it may seem, glaciers and their surroundings are often havens for wildlife. Camping on a glacier a thousand metres up amongst the icefields of Spitsbergen the authors have been disturbed at night by the constant chatter and chuckling of a colony of fulmars, nesting on bare rock cliffs nearby, despite being 30 kilometres from the coast. We have heard the cry of an Arctic fox, and looked out to see that elegant, white-coated animal trotting back and forth below the cliffs, eyeing the nesting birds with eager anticipation, and obviously waiting for an unfortunate chick to fall out of its nest.

Glaciers are not totally lifeless, despite the harshness of the environment. All around the world, many different animal and plant species live and die on and around them, uniquely adapted to the cold. Some species are confined to the edges of the polar ice sheets while others make their homes around mountain glaciers.


The most hostile environment on Earth is Antarctica. The entire continent is a cold desert, characterized by low snowfall, lack of water, exposure to the wind, and salt-bearing mineral soils that lack organic matter. The number of species capable of living under these adverse conditions is small. Only twelve species of birds and four of seals breed in the Antarctic. However, the ecologically rich seas bordering the continent teem with life.

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