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Antarctica: The End of the Earth Home
Unequaled Extremes | Looking for Life | Life in the Icebox | Of Time Machines and Icebergs | Resources

UNEQUALED EXTREMES

Three penguins 

On a planet of extremes, Antarctica has no equals. Indeed, it is a triple-crown winner, simultaneously holding the records for planet Earth's coldest, driest, and windiest place.

As NATURE's ANTARCTICA: THE END OF THE EARTH starkly illustrates, the continent at the bottom of the world is covered by an immense ice sheet. Over 95% of the continent is covered by layers of ice, immense bulks sometimes almost three miles thick. An estimated 70% of the planet's fresh water is locked up in those frozen crystals.

Despite all the water, however, Antarctica is technically a desert. Less than two inches of precipitation fall a year, about the same as in Africa's arid Sahara. And in Antarctica's Dry Valleys -- the continent's largest ice-free region -- measurable precipitation is believed to have been absent for two million years.

But while most deserts are hot, Antarctica is anything but. In fact, the lowest temperature ever recorded on this planet was -129 degrees Fahrenheit, documented in 1983 at the Russian Antarctic research base in Vostok. One reason for the frigid climate is the Antarctic's legendary Katabatic winds, masses of air that literally fall off the continent's high inland plateau toward the sea at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour. ("Katabasis" is Greek for "descent.") In some places, the wind scours every crystal of snow and grain of sand from the surface, sculpting rocks and ice into weird shapes and haunting towers.

Seal
Not surprisingly, the combination of wind and cold makes Antarctica one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. But as ANTARCTICA: THE END OF THE EARTH shows, the creatures that live in this area, from penguins to seals to seabirds, have figured out remarkable ways to survive. And even people have found methods to establish small underground towns where they can stay warm enough to conduct scientific studies, even in the dead of the polar winter.

But even these high-tech communities are at the whim of the weather, which cuts them off from the rest of the world for months at a time. In 1999, the world learned of a tense medical drama: one of the researchers stationed in Antarctica, Dr. Jerri Nielsen, an American physician at the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, discovered that she was suffering from cancer -- after the last flight of the year had already taken off. She was left stranded, without the medical supplies she desperately needed. In the frigid month of August, cargo pilots had to make several dangerous flights to drop the supplies to the surface, and the ill researcher was able to give herself chemotherapy while waiting for rescue. But fierce winds and snowy white-outs forced the pilots to abandon several efforts to evacuate her, until they were finally able to airlift her out in October of 1999.

During such missions, the pilots get just "a half-hour on the ground -- if that," before engines and fuel lines begin to freeze, notes Arthur Brown, a spokesman for the National Science Foundation, which runs the polar base. Given such conditions, delays are "pretty much the drill until the weather says 'Yep, it's OK you can go,'" adds another official.



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