Is Antarctica a desert? Want to know more about Antarctica?
When we hear Antarctica, an image of wide areas with ice sheets, cool breeze, and ice dunes appears in our minds. Antarctica, the seventh and the coldest continent, is situated at the geographic south pole of the globe. It is also the fifth-largest continent.
Antarctica and its environment-
Being the coldest place on Earth, Antarctica is harshly cold all year. Having two seasons: summer and winter, Antarctica is at the side during summer and is always sunny.
Always, during winters, it moves away from the sun and remains dark throughout. With the coming of winter, the temperature falls much below the freezing point of water resulting in frozen lakes and water sources.
One of the main reasons behind the question of Antarctica being a desert is its precipitation trends. Rainfalls are close to none, and snowfalls are at maximum. This accounts for the formation of ice sheets due to the accumulation of ice over a long period, and this phenomenon is known as Antarctic ice sheets.
Formation of Antarctica
When several landmasses split up from the supercontinent Gondwana, Antarctica was among them. India, Africa, South America, Madagascar, and Australia are some of these other landmasses.
Around 500 million years ago, Antarctica was situated around the equator. Approximately 200 million years ago, when Gondwana started splitting up, South Africa and America were the first to tear apart, followed by India and Madagascar. Antarctica and Australia then started to drift towards the southern part, which we know today as the geographic south pole.
In the 1500s, several mapmakers noticed that South America and Africa were once part of the same landmass and looked like they were torn apart. Over time, several biologists and geologists came upon the result that it was all separated from a single landmass.
With the coming of the tectonic theory, it was accepted that these places were once connected, and over a long period, they drifted apart.
The Antarctica of present times is entirely different from the Antarctica of the past. With lush green plains, tropical forests, temperate temperature, and being home to dinosaurs, Gondwana was a land of various species and secrets.
At that time, Earth was soaring with hot temperatures, the planet was free from ice shelves, and sea levels were about 200m higher than present times.
Antarctica, now the seventh continent, remained undiscovered for a greater period of history. It was due to the combined efforts of several sailors and explorers that the Antarctica that we know of today was able to be discovered and expedited.
The first estimations of a continent covered in ice were made as early as 384 BC by Aristotle, but the first sighting of the huge Antarctic ice sheet was recorded in the early 1800s. By the end of the 19th century, a series of expeditions were made for the Antarctic peninsula, later named the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration.
In 1922, the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration came to an end after the death of Earnest Shackleton. Several notable expeditions led by British, Germans, Swedish, and other countries have been recorded in the history books. These resulted in mapping and other discoveries about the Antarctic peninsula.
Shackleton and his four men crew were trying to cross the continent through the south pole, but they were stranded due to their ship, Endurance, being crushed by the floating ice shelves. However, they managed to survive by rafting on sleds.
Later, many expeditions were made by air to map the continent and explore it through aerial view. These air expeditions disproved the notion of East Antarctica and West Antarctica and proved the Antarctic peninsula as a single continent.
History has proven that with new places, there came chances for nations to claim their hands on them. The same happened in the case of the Antarctic peninsula. The British demanded sovereignty over several islands and capes, their reason being regulation and taxing of whaling industries.
The French government then claimed a strip in 1924. Their motivation behind the claim was the discovery of the coastal regions by the French explorer. The British later recognized the claim, and the coastline was fixed.
Similarly, the Norwegian and the German government claimed their rights on some parts of this cold continent, which was later resolved in a treaty.
With the increase in the military powers and scientific research stations, various countries decided to declare the Antarctic peninsula free from nuclear tests, stop the disposal of radioactive wastes, and use the Antarctican surface for peaceful purposes only. Its other aims are to promote international scientific cooperation and free Antarctica from territorial disputes.
The treaty remains in force indefinitely, and its success has been growing since its start. Forty-six countries have signed the treaty so far for the welfare of Antarctica.
Antarctic ice sheet
Around 35 million years ago, the glaciers started to creep down, and ice valleys formed. The true reason behind the sudden growth of the glaciers is still not clear.
But researchers have postulated some factors behind this, such as a change in Earth’s orbit, a change in the amount of solar energy on the planet, and falling in atmospheric carbon dioxide sharply.
Unlike the north pole that floats upon the Arctic ocean, the Antarctic desert has land beneath it. Under the thick layer of ice, there runs several valleys and landmasses. Also, there was once a large river that ran across the continent.
Desert and Tundra
Deserts and tundra are two of the many dedicated areas based on the inhabitant species known as a biome. Both areas can be differentiated from the various other biomes due to low precipitation rates and adverse living conditions.
Deserts are the areas that receive very little or no precipitation over the year and has little to no vegetation. They are primarily located near the equator. The temperature falls to -40C in some places and rises to 90C in some places.
Due to this harsh environment, the plantations in the desert get to adapt to these conditions. Trees and plants in the desert have fewer leaves to cope with the loss of water through transpiration, and their roots go deep down the surface in search of water.
The plant life in the desert also varies from place to place, from Joshua trees in the Mojave desert to Cactuses in the Sonoran Desert.
The fauna of the desert is also different from other places. These animals evolved to bear the chilling hot sun and cool gales during the night. They usually live below the surface or under the rocks to be safe from the harsh environment of the desert. They are usually fast and have light hides that allow them perfect camouflage from the surroundings and escape easily from the predators.
Tundra is the type of biome primarily located at the geographic north pole. The precipitation rate in Tundra is also little but better than in the Desert. Due to little or no precipitation, the temperature falls much below the freezing point, with an average temperature in winters being as minimum as -300C and summers are generally short.
Due to this, only the topmost layer of soil is softened, and the soil below the surface is frozen all over the year. The plantations in Tundra have evolved to survive in minimum soil and harsh environment.
Their roots are wide and shoal to resist the cool, rapid winds. The plants have adapted to such conditions, and various high plants now grow horizontal to the surface like junipers.
The fauna in Tundra is filled with predators and prey, from polar bears to deer. Certain migratory birds also use this as breeding grounds and transmigrate during breeding seasons. The food chain in Tundra is really weak, so even a slight change in a hierarchy causes it to disrupt.
The Sahara desert is the world’s largest hot desert, situated in the African desert. It spans an enormous 3.5 million square miles, covering almost all of northern Africa. The Red Sea surrounds the Sahara desert in the East, the Atlantic Ocean in the West, the North by the Mediterranean sea, and the South by the Sahel.
Among several topographical attributes, the Sahara desert incorporates dunes, swamped basins, rocky plateaus, steep mountains, large oasis, sand sheets, and sand seas. It can also be characterized as the true desert.
It also comprises various valleys and some of the Earth’s high points. Its highest point is the peak of Mount Koussi, which tops at 11,204 feet, and the lowest point of the Sahara desert is in Egypt, which is 436 feet below sea level.
Beneath the Sahara desert sits several layers of unconcealed and uneven Precambrian rocks, which helps keep the sand layer unaltered and horizontal. Sand dunes and sheets cover almost 1/4th of the Sahara desert. These dunes sometimes attain heights up to 500 feet, while some, known as compound dunes, reaching up to 1000 feet.
The climate of Sahara is dominated by mainly two regions: dry subtropical in the North and dry tropical in the South. The North manifests from cold winters and hot summers.
Sahara is characterized by a hot climate in the summer and tops on the list of hot deserts. The average temperature comes down to 13C, while the winters are usually hot, and the average temperature is about 30C. The annual rainfall averages about 3 inches per year.
Plant and animal life
Due to the low precipitation rate, the vegetation mainly comprises shrubs, drought-tolerant herbs, and heat-tolerant trees. The plants in the Sahara desert have adapted to low water resources, and their characteristics like roots and leaves have evolved to cope with the loss of water.
Snakes, Elephants, gazelle, deer, and weasel are some of the fauna that can be seen in these hot deserts. Camels are one of the most essential animals for the Saharan people as they are their main source of transportation in the hottest desert of the world.
Is Antarctica a desert
Definition of a desert is an area that receives very little precipitation. The areas can be classified as anything, be it coastal regions, polar regions, or subtropical. Other classifications that all the deserts share are barren lands and harsh conditions for plant and animal life to sustain.
The average annual rainfall in Antarctica is close to 50mm per year, and a larger part of it comes in the form of ice crystals and snow. Due to constant snowfalls and strong winds, the continent is covered with ice sheets, and the winds carve the ice fields and dunes.
The dominant plants that can survive such harsh conditions in the windiest continent of the planet are mosses and lichens. Also, most animals rely on aquatic species for their nourishment.
It is preferable to say that the whole of Antarctica is a desert, which also makes Antarctica Polar Deserts the largest desert on the planet. The precipitation rates in the coastal regions are still about 200mm, in contrast to the central plains.
Due to this, it is possible to see low clouds and mist formations in the coastal regions. East Antarctica receives no rainfall; the scientists believe it hasn’t rained in some parts of Antarctica for over a million years.
Despite having high precipitation rates in the coastal areas of the Antarctic continent, it is due to no rainfalls in the eastern parts that the average annual rainfall falls so low. Low precipitation rates and adverse living conditions are much greater reasons to permit the notion that Antarctica is a desert.
If measured in terms of vastness, Antarctica is the largest desert. It is almost double the size of the Sahara desert. The other deserts in comparison to this polar desert are:
Arctic Polar Desert covers approximately 5.3 million square miles, second to the Antarctic desert. The Sahara desert is spread across 3.5 million square miles and is the world’s largest hot desert. Gobi desert expands upon 800000 square miles and is the largest desert in Asia.
This beautiful and vast continent filled with ice sheets covers around 5.4 million square miles of the area, almost the same as the areas of the United States and Mexico combined.
Due to the long span of snowing over millions of years, the thick layer of ice that covers this ice desert is about 2.7 miles thick. If, for some reason, the ice sheet melts someday, the water level of the entire planet will rise by several meters.
The Arctic and Antarctic sea ice
The Antarctica sea ice is larger in winters than in summer. The sea ice melts during summer and drifts apart.
The Arctic sea ice is thicker than Antarctica sea ice as it piles up for almost a year due to less pan of summers. The period of winters in the Arctic has declined somewhat, but the summers have declined dramatically in the past years.
Antarctica climate trends
Antarctica has been the center of many controversies. One of them being the Antarctic cooling controversy. There have been several trends in change of average temperature at different locations.
Some observations show the Antarctic desert to be warming while other trends show it to be cooling. According to certain climate models, the temperature trends will be much smaller in the Antarctic peninsula than in the arctic.
With the help of data collected from several weather stations about the past temperature trends of the frozen dessert, it was deduced that the southernmost continent is warming up.
Due to the excess use of fossil fuels, deforestation, and increase in industries’ use, the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has reached a critical level. As greenhouse gases increase in the atmosphere, more heat energy will be entrapped, and the surface of Earth will keep on heating up. This has been one of the reasons behind the warming up of the Antarctic desert.
Antarctica and Global warming
Global warming is the biggest threat behind the melting of polar ice caps in Antarctica and its warming. In recent times, the temperature of Antarctica has reached its all-time high. In February 2020, the temperature reached 18C, the maximum recorded temperature, which resulted in the melting of several glaciers, and climate change has been a serious problem for scientists to solve.
West Antarctica is the most affected area in terms of melting ice sheets. Several glaciers have retreated in recent times, and several glaciers are under the impression of melting up. The ocean’s average temperature in the region has gone up by 1C, increasing the temperature.
Due to global warming and the melting of glaciers, the world sea level is said to first remain constant for about 200 years and then rise sharply. This will increase sea levels by 3m in the coming years or, if lucky enough, centuries.
Effect of Ozone layer depletion
Depletion in the ozone layer is one of the factors behind the cooling trends of Antarctica. Due to it, the winds and storms have increased significantly, both in strength and frequency. Because of the increase in icy winds, seawater leads to more sea ice.
Climate change has adverse effects on the aquatic life of Antarctica as well. Some of the climate models by various research stations, such as the Vostok station, have predicted an increase in global sea average temperature by 2C, which will harm the aquatic life and make it hard for them to survive.
Due to adverse living conditions, the possibility of colonialization of Antarctic sea life in freshwater falls down a critical line. However, freshwater pools can be found in some of the coastal areas and offshore islands. In these freshwater sources, Antarctic sea life can survive and repopulate.
It is not only the aquatic animals threatened by the alarming rate of increase in Antarctica’s average temperature. The land animals such as penguins, polar bears, and fur seals are also endangered by the melting of the world’s largest desert. Animals that live near the water beds are sensitive to small temperature shifts, and these changes can make them easy prey for their predators and disrupt the food chain.
Antarctica desert facts:
Antarctica is the largest desert on Earth, with an enormous area of 13.8 million square miles that covers the southern hemisphere.
Due to freezing temperatures and icy storms, it is also the coldest continent.
Because of low precipitation rates and harsh surviving environments, Antarctica is classified as a desert.
The coldest temperature ever was recorded on the Vostok station. The temperature reached an all-time low of -89.2C.