Stepping into Antarctica, arguably earth’s last true frontier, is very much like stepping into the Star Wars planet of Hoth, where daytime temperatures average well below zero. Looking around the giant expanse of whiteness for too long could render a person snow blind, and just trekking across parts of it requires special foot-gear. Still, its vast terrain offer a number of interests to scientists and tourists alike. The fifth largest continent behind Asia, it is actually considered a desert because its cold, dry and windy climate exceeds all other continents. Precipitation is only eight inches a year.
Antarctica’s surface of ice averages a mile in thickness, and extends across the entire continent except for the northernmost part of the Antarctic Peninsula. Although speculation of a Terra Australis, or “Southern Land”, date as far back as early civilization, actual sighting of the continent in 1820 was made by a Russian expedition lead by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev. However, for the rest of the 19th century, Antarctica was ignored, citing an environment too inhospitable, its isolation and lack of resources.
In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations, prohibiting military expansion, mineral mining, nuclear explosions and waste disposal in Antarctica, while fostering scientific research. Since then, 49 countries have signed, and scientists from many of them continue to conduct scientific research. At any given time, up to 5,000 humans—a non-permanent population, reside in Antarctica, living amongst the research stations scattered across the continent. Only life adapted to the cold remain permanent residents, including many types of bacteria, algae, fungi and plants as well as animals such as penguins and seals.
Antarctica, earth’s last true frontier, recently recorded its coldest temperature ever at 135.8 degrees Fahrenheit below zero, claimed by scientists to be too cold to breathe without pain. It happened in East Antarctica, while at Mary Bird Island, located at the west end of the continent, a hot spot, suspected to be the location of a long-sought mantle plume, was discovered. Volcanoes under the ice? The reading, taken by instruments designed to use seismic waves to construct images of the earth’s inner layers much the way a computed tomography uses x-rays to image cross-sections of the human body, confirmed the presence of “hot rocks”.
A shallow lake buried beneath thousands of feet of ice, known as Lake Whillans, was discovered to be the home of millions of carbon dioxide consuming single-cell microbes. A water sample taken in January of 2013, revealed the lifeforms have resided in a water passage that may not have existed up to a decade ago.
Antarctica isn’t just limited to being a backdrop for scientific research. It is true that people from practically every corner of life have been doing their own thing on earth’s last frontier. Marriage proposals, cell phone network set-ups and musical concerts are among these unusual activities. The US heavy metal band Metallica can now claim to have held a concert in every continent on the planet. They recently played to a crowd of some 100 earphone wearing spectators inside a transparent dome near a glacier at Argentina’s Carlini base. Outside the dome, strong antarctic winds gusted, creating a brutal wind chill.
So, as Antarctica continues to give up its secrets, what’s in store for earth’s last true frontier? Only time and the progression of technology and science will tell—and perhaps people with crazy ideas of doing crazy things near the South Pole, arguably Santa Clause’s vacation retreat.
By Lee Birdine