When speaking of deserts, we tend to imagine a landscape covered with vast stretches of golden sands, a scorching sun shining in the sky above, and a complete absence of the life-saving compound known as water. However, many of us are seemingly unaware that the world’s largest desert is the cold desert of Antarctica, located concentrically around the South Pole. There, despite the land being covered permanently by ice and snow, there is very little precipitation (amounting to less than 50 millimeters a year in the interiors of the continent), qualifying it as a "cold desert".
The existence of a landmass near the South Pole of the Earth was proposed to exist as early as the First Century CE by Ptolemy, and many maps of the world for a long time thereafter depicted the hypothetical southern landmass upon them. The first confirmed sightings of this landmass, however, did not take place until as late as the early 19th Century, when Russian, British, and American expeditions separately discovered the continent of Antarctica. Von Bellingshausen of the Russian navy is one of the men credited with the first discovery of the continent, doing so on January 27th, 1820. The American sealer John Davis was the first to land on the frozen continent on February 7th, 1821. The 1841 expedition led by James Clark Ross, a British Royal Navy officer, also led to significant discoveries in Antarctica, and the Ross Island and Ross Ice Shelf are currently still named after him. Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his team were the first to reach the geographic South Pole, doing so on December 14th, 1911. Since then, a large number of expeditions have been made into this continent by a large number of countries, and multidisciplinary studies of Antarctica have been extensively conducted. Realizing the importance of preserving the peace and sanctity of the pristine habitats of Antarctica for the welfare of the world, the countries active in the continent signed an Antarctic Treaty on December 1st, 1959. This was meant to ensure that no country claims land on the continent for the purpose of exploiting its resources. Only scientific investigations and explorations and tourism are to be allowed, and even these only as long as they are not causing any harm to the pristine environments of Antarctica.
Though mineral deposits of platinum, coal, copper, nickel, and gold have been discovered in the Antarctic continent, the 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection, and the 1998 agreement on a ban in mining until 2048 in Antarctica, have withheld the exploitation of the pristine Antarctic habitat by the world’s mining industries. Some amount of commercial fishing is, however, allowed in the waters around Antarctica. Currently, the tourism industry in the continent is on the rise and, as per the figures of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators, in the 2014-15 tourist season 36,702 tourists visited the continent within this same one year period. Antarctica is also an excellent area for scientific studies, and scientists from multidisciplinary fields participate in the various scientific projects carried out here. They work to elucidate the Earth’s geological, biological, and environmental patterns, both historical and present.
Habitat and Biodiversity
Though heavy snowfall is not uncommon along the coastal portions of Antarctica, the dry interior hardly receives any precipitation at all. Less than 10 centimeters of precipitation occurs at the South Pole, though the land remains permanently frozen in ice and snow throughout the year. Minimum temperatures in the interior of Antarctica range between -80° Celsius and -90° Celsius at times, while in the coastal areas maximum temperatures range between 5° Celsius and 15° Celsius are seen. Like other deserts of the world, the lack of precipitation, poor soil quality, and extreme temperatures discourage the growth of life forms upon this landmass. Plant growth is mostly limited to lichens, bryophytes, fungi, algae, and a few flowering plants, such as the Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearl-wort. Most of the fauna there is found in the coastal regions, and plant growth periods are limited to but a few weeks in the summertime. The interior of the continent, meanwhile, hardly has any surviving animal life forms. Interestingly enough, the largest exclusively terrestrial land animal of Antarctica is the Flightless midge, which is in fact a 12-millimeter-long insect. Other invertebrates like lice, nematodes, krill, and mites are also found here. Among the avians, the Snow petrel is a bird which is found in the Antarctic desert as far south as near to the South Pole. The habitats near the Antarctic coast, meanwhile, are comparatively much more hospitable, and thrive with marine and semi-aquatic animals like large colonies of penguins. Aquatic mammals, such as whales, orcas, and seals, occupy the waters along the Antarctic coast.
Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes
Today, large threats loom over the frozen continent of Antarctica. The life in this pristine cold desert habitat appears to be in danger from the exploitative activities of humankind. Global warming brings about the worst form of climatic changes to the continent, causing a rise in temperatures and a subsequent retreat of glaciers and ice slopes, collapses of ice shelves, and increased ocean acidification. All of these threaten to damage the respective life cycles of native Antarctic species, and also to cause a global rise in sea levels. Besides these, the possibility of future commercial fishing and mining activities, both of which are currently illegal, remain as the depletion of future natural resources could force governments of countries to legalize the exploitation of the natural resources of this unspoiled piece of our world. Invasive species are currently entering the Antarctic habitat via ships and humans arriving on the continent. These threaten the endemic species of the region, such as, for example, the rats arriving in ships. These rodents threaten the native birds of Antarctica, many of which are quite vulnerable to them since they lack an experience in fending off predators in a habitat that is otherwise free of any natural predators for these same birds. Tourism also introduces increased pollution risks, and creates disturbances in the pristine Antarctic habitats.