Mighty Glaciers and Strong Flowers

The ice fall at the bottom of the Argentière Glacier is a special place. It’s where the ice forms impressive séracs. Séracs are huge ice towers that occasionally break off of glaciers and tumble down. These phenomenons are mesmerizing to watch and the ice falls with lots of noise. The colors of the séracs are fantastic. Some ice towers are pure white, others clear blue and some are grey because of the grit and stones that are frozen solid into the ice. I’m so absorbed into the spectacle that I almost overlook the flowers at my feet. Delicate looking flowers of a saxifrage (Saxifraga) shake violently back and forth in the icy wind which is coming from the glacier. These little flowers are probably just as impressive as those massive séracs.

UV radiation, drought & other problems

I’m amazed that saxifrages and other alpine plants can live in such harsh conditions. Plants that occur in alpine terrain – roughly above 2000 meters – will be confronted with severe temperature fluctuations when warm summer days alternate with cold freezing nights. Moreover, the weather can suddenly change. Think of storms, wind, hail, heavy showers, and in the middle of summer, it can suddenly snow.

In the alpine there is also a lack of shade to protect against the merciless sun. The strong ultraviolet rays can cause harmful burns on leaves. Besides, saxifrages and other alpine plants sometimes just grow on bare rocks, almost without soil. And then there is drought! Mountain air contains less water vapor and is therefore drier than “low air”. The wind – which is often and strongly present – dries out the environment even further. This creates a dry environment, despite the fact that perception regularly pours out of the sky, violently.

The mystery

I’m sure that the flowers on the edge of the Argentière Glacier are a saxifrage species. Once at home, however, I cannot shake off the feeling that I want to know exactly what species it is. That is why I send a photo by email to the Nature Information Centre of the Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve on the other side of the valley (Nature Highlights on the Tour du Mont Blanc: Aiguilles Rouges Nature Reserve – May 5, 2019), but the experts there also have their doubts: it looks like mossy saxifrage (Saxifraga bryoides), a typical species for glacier moraines at high altitudes, but it could also be the more rare rough saxifrage (Saxifraga aspera). The difference between the two species is so small that it is not visible in my photo. Whether it is mossy or rough saxifrage, that I will probably never know, but that does not detract from the beauty of the plant. And actually, this unsolved question even adds a little to the mystification of these delicate looking flowers surviving in this incredible place.

More information:

The Argentière Glacier is part of the stunning scenery on the Tour du Mont Blanc. The Trient Glacier is another impressive glacier on this trek. Read about Simone’s trip to the Trient Glacier here:  A Trient Glacier Trip to Remember – June 15, 2019

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Simone van Velzen

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