Antarctica: the frozen continent — essentially a huge island at the bottom of the world — is both mysterious and cold. It is also fascinating, newly discovered, and the subject of many myths. However, the bizarre realities of Antarctica are stranger than fiction. Antarctica offers exceptional scientific insights. The little known dangers of Antarctica that could potentially kill you are also quite surprising…
10. The Death Seals
Antarctica is freezing cold, so it’s not just the sharks you have to worry about when it comes to the water. Antarctica is home to truly terrifying, gigantic meat-eating seals known as Leopard Seals that have chomped humans to death. Growing to enormous sizes, Leopard Seals usually eat penguins, but in July 2003, British marine biologist Kirsty Brown lost her life in a horrifying giant seal attack. The seals can reach a shocking 13 feet in length, weighing in at 990 pounds of muscle, tooth, and flesh. Brown was employed by the British Antarctic Survey, and her fellow members witnessed the attack and attempted to intervene.
The giant seal, capable of swimming at 25 miles per hour, was able to exert complete control in the attack, giving the victim no real chance of fighting back. After being pulled out of the water onto a rescue boat, an effort to revive the drowned biologist was made, but the attack was ultimately too severe. Brown, 28, had been snorkeling in the waters off the Antarctic peninsula and was in close proximity to the Rothera Research Station. While the attack has been deemed mysterious, something seems obvious, and that is giant predatory marine mammals and humans do not mix.
9. Sub-glacial Volcanoes
Imagine putting a block of ice on a stovetop burner. Ice melts, revealing red hot elements below. Antarctica may seem like the definition of bitter cold, yet it is burning hot in a number of areas. Walking on the ice, the explorer of the Antarctic may not be aware of the tremendous heat beneath some of Earth’s coldest spots. Discoveries continue to be made of sub-glacial volcanos, where melting glacial areas are revealed to be covering a scorching hot active volcano beneath the ice of Antarctica. The frozen continent is really a volcanic world hotspot. Researchers from the University of Edinburgh have pioneered work showing that Antarctica has the greatest concentration of active volcanos on Earth — some below the ice, and some activity occurring above.
Maps show only two active volcanos exist in Antarctica, but researchers suggest that thinning ice sheets could lead to reductions in pressure, which means multitudes of dormant Antarctic volcanoes could come to life. While there have been zero cases of intrepid explorers actually falling through melted ice, the sheer abundance, heat, and unpredictable nature of the volcanically active sites of Antarctica warrant some caution. It seems that Antarctica is a place where you could not only get frozen very quickly, but if particularly careless and unlucky, could get melted.
8. Terrifying Crevasses
You would be forgiven for thinking that a visit to Antarctica would involve aimless wandering across the frozen landscape’s surface without too much care, except for an insulated suit recalling space exploration gear. However, without sufficient caution to avoid Antarctica’s “bad neighborhoods” you could fall several hundred feet to your death walking on level ground. Massive crevasses, some hundreds of feet deep, fracture the continent — many not obvious until you take a step into the void. Add glare and featureless ice, and you have a real hazard.
In Antarctica, the Earth really could swallow you up thanks to the deceptively featureless frozen landscape’s ability to conceal the fatal flaws in the terrain. In a particularly terrible 1965 case, a crevasse swallowed up an Antarctic research vehicle with fatal results for onboard crew. October 14 of that year saw an expedition by John Ross, Jeremy Bailey, David Wild, and John Wilson (who traveled in a muskeg tractor) close to the Halley Research Station of East Antarctica when a crevasse appeared too late. The vehicle fell 100 feet, smashing the cab. Ross was not in the cab, sparing him the fatal incident. The cab was crushed by the fall, but the badly injured Bailey was alive long enough to shout to Ross, informing him that Wild and Wilson were deceased before he, too, lost his life.
7. Antarctica is New to Humanity
Antarctica may be cemented or, shall we say, frozen into the minds of the world population as the famous island continent of penguins, but the continent of cold was discovered exceptionally recently. Antarctica was imagined by the imaginative, who were correct in their guesses as a hypothetical place they called “Terra Australis,” meaning “Southern Land,” since ancient times, but the Russian expedition of 1820 was the first recorded human encounter with Antarctica in the form of a sighting of the continent.
The Antarctic landscape drew interest from a diverse audience, ranging from sealers to geographers. Some milestones in the gradual discovery of Antarctica include the first recorded setting of human feet upon Antarctica in 1821 by John Davis, an American sealer who traveled from his home of New Haven, Connecticut to Hughes Bay, Antarctica, where he came ashore. Another milestone was set in 1899 when Carsten Borchgrevink and his crew sailed in the Southern Cross to Cape Adare, overwintering in self-made huts, the first time humans had done so on the continent. By 1909 the magnetic south pole was reached, and in 1911 the geographic south pole was reached.
6. Antarctica: Earth’s Driest Desert
Antarctica is like a bizarre miser, climate-wise. Although Antarctica contains an enormous quantity of water, it is locked in deep frozen storage like some kind of hydrogeological savings account, while the climate of the continent is parched. So parched in fact that Antarctica is classified as a desert, and not just any desert, but a region containing the driest places on Earth. To put it in perspective, Death Valley, California or the Sahara Desert are wetter places than the Dry Valleys of Antarctica, which have not seen any rain in the past couple of million years. That means only a little less than four inches of precipitation reaches the surface annually on average. In the interior of the continent, precipitation annually may fall to a mere two inches.
The Antarctic Desert is also the world’s largest desert. The definition of a desert, within which Antarctica falls well within, is a region that receives only 9.84 or less inches of precipitation annually. The precipitation need not be rain, but also counts as fog, snow or sleet. Antarctic blizzards are frequently illusory: real precipitation is not taking place in many storms to any appreciable degree, but snow and ice is picked up off the ground by the extraordinarily powerful winds that lash across the Antarctic icescape before being redeposited on the ground.
5. The Winds
Antarctic weather is truly extreme. So extreme that venturing out without the proper protection can be promptly fatal. Just because the weather is brutally cold (the coldest place on Earth) does not mean the air is somehow frozen to a standstill. The continent of Antarctica is 98% covered by ice sheets, upon which extreme weather conditions develop. Due to a meteorological phenomenon, cold air with a high density emerges from the freezing interior of the continent and roars down the coastal slopes at extreme velocity. The bizarre phenomenon has produced winds that have reached a maximum of 199 miles per hour. These extreme winds of Antarctica are known as katabatics.
Such high winds significantly reduce visibility as frozen material is gathered up. Even if explorers were suited up for protection and tethered securely to the ground, progress would be impeded in such storms and the chance of falling into crevasses or off cliffs is significantly increased. While the center of the continent is notably dry and desolate, the winds are far less extreme in the interior than on the Antarctic coast. At the South Pole, which has an elevation of 9,300 feet, the fastest wind recorded was just 58 MPH.
4. Exceptional Meteorite Discoveries
Antarctica is dominated by ice, creating an exceptionally unique environment that has led to the frozen “wastelands” being the top hunting site for extraterrestrial artifacts worldwide. We are not talking about little green humanoids, but rather meteorites. A stunning 90% of world meteorite discoveries have been made in Antarctica. Though it seems counterintuitive, the continent’s ice and glacial activity catches, conceals, and then reveals meteorites in quantity like clockwork as the ice is pushed against the Transantarctic Mountains and erodes, a remarkable process quite unlike anything seen elsewhere on Earth.
Among the meteorites discovered in the Antarctic, remarkable specimens stand out for size and the stories they are able to tell. The largest extraterrestrial stone discovered so far measured two feet by two feet by a foot and a half, bearing complex mineral salts left behind by evaporation processes. Chondritic meteorites in Antarctica hold the key to discoveries of the nature of the ancient solar system, with pre-earth water preserved within in hydrous mineral crystals in the meteorites. The cold weather of Antarctica and lack of vegetation or eroding sands means that the meteorites found are also in very good condition for study.
3. Subglacial Lakes
Antarctica is not just a sheet of ice covering a rocky continent. Such a situation would be far too simple. Antarctica is much more complex and strange than that. More than 400 subglacial lakes have been discovered hiding below the immensely thick ice sheets that cover Antarctica at a mean thickness of 6,000 feet. The huge Lake Vostok, below the Vostok research station, is the largest of Antarctica’s known subglacial lakes.
Another large lake, known as Lake Mercer, covers an area close to 54 square miles below the ice sheets. In this subglacial lake, samples have displayed high concentrations of life in the form of bacteria, reaching densities of 10,000 bacteria per milliliter of water. Located in Western Antarctica, several hundred miles from the South Pole, this lake is thought to be nourished by ancient carbon deposits that support the density of life that is not high by global standards, but exceptionally high for a sub-glacial lake. Further exploration of Antarctica aided by technological advances will continue to find these concealed habitats and the determine what exotic life they may contain.
2. Antarctic Civilization
Modern humans have made more significant inroads to Antarctica than might be imagined. Argentina has established a full-fledged town on the frozen continent known as Base Esperanza (Hope Base) on the Antarctic Peninsula, from which a wide variety of research activities can be carried out. Another town established by Chile and known as Villa Las Estrellas on King George Island, is just off the Antarctic Peninsula. These are the only two civilian towns of Antarctica. Most residents stay for the summer season of three to six months. Once winter sets in, leaving or arriving is next to impossible.
There are a number of other remarkable elements of civilization in Antarctica, including seven churches, among them the well named “Chapel of the Snows” which burned down despite the cold, and also 40 airports. As of 2009, 11 people have been born in Antarctica. The first person to be born in Antarctica was Emilio Marcos Palma, who had the distinction of being the first individual born on the continent on January 7, 1978, at the Argentine Esperanza Base. Seven more people were born at that base afterward, while three births took place at Chile’s Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva base.
1. Bizarre Invertebrates
Antarctica is a harsh environment, but the invertebrate species that have conquered Antarctica include the truly bizarre and sometimes horrific in their elite ranks. In Antarctica, just one species of insect, Belgica antarctica, the Antarctic Midge, braves the frigid weather. This tiny, shiny black invertebrate has the smallest insect genome known to science. The midge is technically a fly, but lacks wings. Even stranger, the midges survive two winters frozen in the ice as larvae before living a week to 10 days as adults before dying, allowing just enough time to feed on microscopic life and reproduce.
In the water, some serious horror awaits the invertebrate enthusiast, so bring gloves… or just don’t go near the water. Eulagisca gigantea grows to eight inches and patrols the freezing waters off Antarctica. Recently discovered, the bizarre marine worm has huge, human-like teeth attached to an extendible fleshy head. The creature looks remarkably similar to the alien from the Alien franchise. If you are still not terrified or awed, the Colossal Squid takes invertebrate size to a whole new level, growing to unknown sizes, but one specimen caught off Antarctica weighed 770 pounds, with plate sized eyes, massive, sharp teeth-bearing tentacles, equipped to do much more damage than the Giant Squid.