Is Antarctica a Desert?

The land of colossal size, bigger than even Europe or Australia, Antarctica is the windiest and coldest continent on Earth. People usually refer to it as the frozen south – the beaches here aren’t golden and the temperatures are nowhere near warm. With everything taken into account, the only unanswered question remains: Is Antarctica A Desert?

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Mountain ranges in Antarctica look formidable

It all depends on what we mean by desert in the first place. Scorching temperatures and sand dunes without a tree in sight could be the best description of a desert. Still, is there such thing as an icy desert and is Antarctica one?

What is a Desert?

The first thing that comes to mind when someone says desert is probably the great Sahara Desert. Geologically and geographically speaking, a desert is a vast, barren area without any rain, snow, or drizzle. As such, it’s an area that is ultimately hostile and unfavorable for the animal and plant life. These regions receive less than 10 inches of average annual rainfall and the temperature fluctuations are immense. They can change drastically and it frequently happens that an average daytime of 38°C plummets down to -4°C during the night.

Being the most fragile ecosystems on the planet, deserts usually only have two seasons: summer and winter. The annual precipitation i.e. products of the condensation of atmospheric water is highly unpredictable and uneven. When combined with the volatility of the temperature variations, it’s rather difficult to tell which season is which.

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Is There Life in The Desert?

Some of the largest deserts in the world look like they might as well be on Mars or any other distant planet in the universe. It’s only logical why we may come to the conclusion that these space-like wastelands stand zero chances of containing any form of life. But is this really so?

As forbidding and apparently uninhabitable as they might seem, deserts around the world are actually brimming with living things. The residents of these regions range from the most simple ones, such as bacteria and fungi, all the way to most complex ones, such as animals and plants, and even people!

What is Antarctica?

There is quite a handful of facts about Antarctica and they all prove just how impressive this land is. First of all, Antarctica is the Earth’s southernmost continent, covering the massive surface of 14 million square kilometers. Not only is it the fifth largest continent but it’s also the coldest one. It is at Antarctica’s Vostok station that the coldest temperature on Earth was recorded and it was minus 89.2 degrees Celsius. Miraculously, the Dry Valleys of Antarctica are also the driest place on Earth.

The only flora in Antarctica is grass

Antarctica is also the largest single mass of ice in the world since ninety-nine percent of it is covered by ice while the average ice thickness is around 1.6 kilometers. Not all water on Antarctica is frozen, though. On the contrary, it is home to about 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water. To top it off, pristine freshwater Vostok lake is about the size of Lake Ontario and it’s buried beneath 3.7 kilometers of solid Antarctic ice.

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Unbelievably enough, those are not the only curiosities surrounding Antarctica. This vast ice-capped continent is home to one of the longest mountain ranges on Earth – the 3,500 kilometers long Transantarctic Mountains which divide the continent into West Antarctica and East Antarctica. Last but not least, this land is also the one with many contrasts. Oddly enough, this continent boasts an active volcano, Mount Erebus, whose activity was last recorded in 2006.

Finally, Antarctica is a phenomenal place to witness the celestial aurora light show. Auroras are natural electric phenomena known for their colorful light displays in the sky. Unlike aurora borealis characteristic of the Arctic Circle, aurora australis or the southern lights are visible in Antarctica, especially between March and September.

Southern lights are visible from the frozen continent

Is There Life in Antarctica?

There are no native human Antarcticans and it wasn’t until 1899 that the first expedition laid its foot on this land’s surface. Permanent residents and indigenous people never existed in Antarctica and no one actually lives there for an indefinite period of time, not even to this day. The only settlements and civilian towns are scientific bases that vary in size. The scientists occupy the bases all year round although only a small number of them stays there during the winter months. Tourists, on the other hand, flock to Antarctica in staggering numbers.

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Scientific huts in Antarctica

According to Antarctica’s tourism statistics, around 40 000 people visit the continent annually. Though this is not an average travel destination, many adventurers still decide to embark on this journey. Many of them simply cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula and admire the icy scenery while only a small number of them step foot on the shore.

As far as the animal and plant life is concerned, the story is quite the opposite than their temporary human neighbors. Emperor penguins inhabit the continent and they are the most common bird of the South pole. They are not the only penguins there, however. Adelie penguins, Gentoo penguins, Chinstrap penguins, and King Penguins all reside here. They are often joined by Crabeater, Weddell, Southern Fur, and Leopard seals. Apart from penguins, other bird species inhabit Antarctica as well. Blue eyed shag, Giant petrel, Cape pigeon, and Snowy Sheathbill are only some of them.

penguins populate the seventh continent

Plants are extremely scarce here. Unlike the hot deserts where one can find an occasional shrub, tree, or a cactus, there are no trees or shrubs in Antarctica. The only ice-free parts of the continent are found on the peninsula which is exactly where only two species of flowering plants are found – Antarctic pearlwort and Antarctic hair grass. Other non-flowering flora includes liverworts and mosses that are able to survive in extreme environments.

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Antartica is Actually a No Man’s Land

As mentioned before, life is possible here but not sustainable at all. The scientists who stay there for long periods of them don’t make Antartica their permanent home. Apart from being extremely life-hostile, Antartica is actually a no man’s land. It has no government of its own, no native human population, no cities, no banks, no schools – nothing that makes up for our daily lives elsewhere.

Antarctica holds the majority of Earth's fresh water

After the Antarctic Treaty was signed, the governments of over 50 countries agreed to keep Antarctica demilitarized and promote international scientific cooperation through having their scientist and expeditions there. Having made scientific research their priority in this polar region, the governments have never had a tug of war over these territories.

Until recently, the ship was the only means of transport that could get you to these parts of the world. Today, there are “fly/sail” trips to this remote continent.

Many tourists travel to Antarctica

Apart from those places where scientists reside, there is almost no official accommodation in the forms of hotels or hostels. The only lodging here is The White Desert Camp. Staying here is out of the realm of possibility for a lot of people, simply because a week there costs around $80,000. The camp is the most remote property in the world, comprising several “sleeping pods” whose interiors redefine luxury. The hefty price tag repels the majority of travelers although celebrities such as Bear Grylls, Prince Harry, and Buzz Aldrin already ticked this one off their bucket lists.

The Final Verdict – Is Antarctica A Desert?

With everything taken into account, the ultimate answer to the initial question is yesAntarctica is a desert. The absence of moisture or very small amounts of it classify Antarctica as a desert. Though fresh water is abundant in the Antarctica desert, there is no moisture in the air which is one of the main characteristics of deserts.

Though it doesn’t conform with the usual descriptions of the hot deserts we are accustomed to, it is still one of the most hostile and yet fascinating places on Earth. The life in the Antarctic desert surely does exist. Though scarce in the way we know it, life here is not impossible, at least not for some species but still, those don’t include humans. Instead, we should admire this chilly desert from afar and leave it as it is. With global warming becoming an increasingly worrisome issue, we should make the effort to save the seventh continent from melting and vanishing into thin air.