fuchsia petals of fireweed in bloom

Glacier Bay is blanketed by a mosaic of plant life, from a few pioneer species in recently exposed areas to intricately balanced climax communities in coastal and alpine regions. Since virtually all the vegetation in the bay has returned to the land in the past 300 years following the retreat of the glaciers, this area is one of the premier sites on the planet to study plant recolonization.

In the classic story of plant succession, spores or seeds are blown into a new area by the wind or carried in by birds or other animals. Lichen spores that land on the appropriate rocky surface will anchor themselves to the rock using root-like structures called “rhizomes.” Unlike most plants, lichens absorb essential nutrients from the air and rain rather than through roots in soil. As they grow, lichens secret an acid that dissolves the rock around them, creating soil.

As soil develops, more seeds and spores arrive, such as those of mosses, avens (Dryas), horsetail and fireweed. In time, these pioneer communities can develop into dense thickets of nitrogen-fixing alder and cottonwood that enrich the soil and provide shelter for other colonizing species such as willow.

Farthest away from the glaciers in time and space, the lowlands near the mouth of Glacier Bay have become cloaked in a spruce/hemlock rainforest and lush, spongy tracts of muskeg. In the surrounding mountains, thick mats of flowers and heath carpet the alpine hills and meadows.

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Plants From the Deck
Glacier Bay was first protected in 1925 as a world famous location to study plant life. What better place to observe how life returns after a glacier has wiped the slate clean? Even from the deck of your ship, changing patterns and colors are easily noticed. Listen as Park Ranger Fay Schaller illuminates the story behind the scenery.

Lichens of Alaska Forests
US Forest Service guidebook

Mosses and Liverworts of Alaska Forests
US Forest Service guidebook

Ferns of Alaska Forests
US Forest Service guidebook

Common Plants of the Muskegs of Southeast Alaska
US Forest Service guidebook

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Last updated: February 16, 2018

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Mailing Address:

Glacier Bay National Park & Preserve
PO Box 140

Gustavus, AK 99826


(907) 697-2230

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