The Antarctic Polar Desert is the largest desert on Earth, measuring a total of 13.8 million square kilometers.
Antarctica, which is earth’s fifth largest continent is the coldest, windiest, and most isolated continent, and is considered a desert because its annual precipitation can be less than 51 mm in the interior.
When most people imagine Antarctica, they think of a cold continent covered in ice. Well, they’re right. In fact, 90% of the world’s freshwater is locked up in Antarctica’s permanent ice sheet.
By contrast, the idea of the desert usually conjures images of rippled sand dunes and the shimmering heat of the Sahara. So how is it possible that a cold, ice-covered continent like Antarctica is a desert?
A desert is defined by the amount of precipitation (rain, snow, mist and fog) in an area. A region that receives very little precipitation is classified as a desert.
There are many types of deserts, including subtropical, coastal and polar deserts. What they all have in common is a barren, windswept landscape, which makes it difficult for plants and animals alike to gain a foothold on land. This all certainly applies to Antarctica.
The average yearly rainfall at the South Pole over the past 30 years was a tiny 10 mm. Most of the continent is covered by ice fields carved by the wind, and craggy mountains covered in glaciers.
While Antarctica is home to wonderful forests of low-lying mosses and lichens, there are only two flowering plants that can survive the harsh conditions. And most of the animals inhabiting the region such as penguins, seals, whales and seabirds – rely on seafood for sustenance.
While most deserts only cover part of a continent, the Antarctic Polar Desert spans the whole of Antarctica. It snows and rains on the coastal Antarctic Peninsula, but in the McMurdo Dry Valleys in East Antarctica, it never rains.
Scientists believe that in some parts of the Dry Valleys it hasn’t snowed or rained for 14 million years! So although the coast sees some precipitation, the average across the continent is low enough to classify all of Antarctica as a polar desert.
Approximately 98% of the Antarctic continent is covered by a permanent ice sheet. This beautiful and wild expanse of ice covers an incredible 14 million km² (5.4 million square miles). That’s about the same area as the United States and Mexico combined!
At its deepest, Antarctica’s ice is 4.5km (2.7 miles) thick. If it melted, global sea levels would rise about 60 m (200 ft). That’s a lot of ice. And due to Antarctica’s desert conditions, it has taken an impressive 45 million years for it to grow to its current thickness.
The Antarctic Polar Desert is the largest desert on earth, almost twice the size of the Sahara Desert. While Antarctica is classified as a desert, many of the nearby islands are considered tundra, including the South Shetland Islands, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
Antarctica may be a desert, but it’s surrounded by iridescent blue icebergs, an endless expanse of ocean and a dome of polar sky