Since when would anyone consider Antarctica a desert? Where’s the sand? The extreme heat? The heatstroke? Cacti? The romance of the imagery in the desert? That cow skull that keeps showing up?
That’s the ticket. When we think Antarctica, we think of this:
See, what we normally think of Antarctica is happening along the coasts. A lot of what makes a desert a desert to begin with is a massive lack of precipitation, which includes rain and snow. We get that the Sahara, much of the Australian Outback, the Mojave don’t get a lot of rain. It may be hard to believe this, but while the coasts do get quite a bit of precipitation, as snow, maybe even rain, the interior receives very little amounts of annual snowfall in the form of ‘diamond dust‘. Sounds romantic, but thanks to the weather system that exists in the South Pole and the interior, the winds are abhorrently violent. Forget staying cozy in the many research stations in the continent. You’re trying to stay warm.
This also could mean that individual snowflakes in the interior, the ones inside the permafrost, may indeed be thousands of years old. However, scientists are trying to go deeper, since there may be more beneath the surface of the permafrost than ancient ice crystals. Why? Earlier this year, scientists have some evidence that there could very well be stuff underneath the permafrost that we’ve not seen before because, well, it’s hidden. Canyons. Under-ice lakes. Life. This could be a completely different thing than desert flora and fauna, since it may not actually be a desert underneath the ice. It may even give us some clues about ancient climate and a better description of the Earth’s climate cycles. Life may have been going on there for years and we wouldn’t have otherwise known without some sophisticated equipment. There’s a lot to find, but there’s a lot to do first.
If life exists under the permafrost, it’s likely to be in water, kept warm and livable by two things. First, the permafrost protects the surface from violent, nasty winds (like any other frozen lake in the world), so that’s the surface covered. Second, the lakes may be kept warm due to geothermal heat from far beneath the ice. So what happens if scientists just dig without abandon? Well, expect to get fired like hell because without due diligence, you may end up falling into a sudden ice gap or even the aforementioned canyons because you didn’t check your instruments. Ice could fall into the lakes and kill whatever’s down there; we don’t know what life is down there and they may not be as adept at dodging falling things like their coastal brethren. Also, once the under-ice lake is exposed, who knows what the nasty local climate can do to it? OK, maybe they could just build a dome on top of the dig site, but then there are engineering concerns that hopefully, that giant thing of permafrost the researchers are sitting doesn’t suddenly come crashing down. Hey, if they can build research stations and telescopes (like the featured image) safely, we can engineer safer research stations and exploration methods. Have a little faith in our scientific abilities.
Even if we can map every inch of the Earth and Google Maps our way to anywhere we please (some directions may involve swimming, dragons, and royal carriage), the Antarctic, or rather what’s under it, is still very much a frontier. We’re not done exploring this planet yet, and maybe it’ll give us more insights on how to explore a new planet once we get there. After all, you wouldn’t want to just buy a house without checking out everything, no?
Featured image credit: public domain (United States)