Could a tiny fern change the world — again?

A worker tends to a rural farm in Hanoi, Vietnam, where technology is making it easier to harvest an ancient fern called Azolla. Some scientists and farmers view Azolla as a solution to our modern-day agricultural and environmental challenges.

Pham Gia Minh

More than 50 million years ago, the Arctic Ocean was the opposite of a frigid wasteland. It was a gigantic lake surrounded by lush greenery brimming with flora and fauna, thanks to the humidity and warm temperatures. Giant tortoises, alligators, rhinoceros-like animals, primates, and tapirs roamed through nearby forests in the Arctic.

This greenhouse utopia abruptly changed in the early Eocene period, when the Arctic Ocean became landlocked. A channel that connected the Arctic to the greater oceans got blocked. This provided a tiny fern called Azolla the perfect opportunity to colonize the layer of freshwater that formed on the surface of the Arctic Ocean. The floating plants rapidly covered the water body in thick layers that resembled green blankets.

Gradually, Azolla colonies migrated to every continent with the help of repeated flooding events. For around a million years, they captured more than 80 percent of atmospheric carbon dioxide that got buried at the bottom of the Arctic Ocean as billions of Azolla plants perished.

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Anuradha Varanasi
Anuradha Varanasi is a freelance science journalist based in Mumbai, India. She has an MA in Science Journalism from Columbia University in the City of New York. Her stories on environmental health, biomedical research, and climate change have been published in Forbes, UnDark, Popular Science, and Inverse. You can follow her on Twitter @AnuradhaVaranas
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