When most people think of a desert, images of sand and extreme heat come to mind. It is then ironic when we learn that the largest desert on earth is covered in ice. A desert is a region that receives less than ten inches of precipitation a year. The fact that the continent of Antarctica gets an average of fewer than two inches of precipitation a year qualifies it as a desert.
Is All of Antarctica Desert?
While ice covers over 90% of the Antarctic continent, some coastal areas are less extreme. The Arctic Peninsula extends north of the Antarctic Circle into the Southern Ocean and the Weddell Sea. The water masses surrounding the peninsula moderate the temperature and provide moisture for precipitation. This portion of the continent receives as much as eight inches of precipitation annually. Several islands at the northern tip of the sub-Antarctic archipelago receive as much as forty inches of precipitation yearly.
The interior of the continent is extremely dry. The McMurdo Dry Valley in Eastern Antarctica rarely sees precipitation. Some researchers suspect the region has not seen rain or snowfall for thousands of years. The average rainfall at the South Pole for the past 25 years has been 0.4 inches annually. Since the total area of low precipitation far exceeds the temperate regions, the average precipitation for the continent is well below the threshold for classification as a desert.
The Biodiversity of Antarctica.
As with any desert, the biodiversity of the Antarctic Desert is limited. Land-based lifeforms on the continent are concentrated in coastal areas. There are no trees or bushes in Antarctica. The most prolific vegetation on the continent are mosses, liverworts, fungi, and lichens. The most significant terrestrial life includes several species of penguins, seals, and migratory birds. Most of the life in the region exists in the ocean. Whales, seal lions, and a myriad of micro-animals populate the waters surrounding the continent. The predominant species of fish in the area is the unique icefish.
Economic Development in Antarctica.
In the past, whaling, seal hunting, and fishing have been the limit of business ventures in the Antarctic. International treaties have largely curtailed these activities. The fishing of cod and krill is currently a significant source of economic activity. Today, eco-tourism and scientific research are developing economic activities on the continent. Several valuable minerals, including silver, gold, and oil, have been discovered on and around the continent. Due to the remoteness and difficulty of mining in the extreme climate, the concentrations of mineral deposits do not make development feasible. As demands increase and extraction techniques improve, mining may become viable in the future.
Threats to the Antarctic Desert.
The pristine status of the Antarctic environment is being threatened in three ways. All three are related to human activity. The most challenging and severe are impacts due to climate change. The warming of the atmosphere and oceans both create issues for the Antarctic environment. Increased atmospheric moisture may cause increased precipitation on the continent’s ice shelf. Expanded rainfall regions will contribute to ice loss already impacted by a warming atmosphere and rising water levels. The result will be accelerated destruction of the Antarctic ice sheet.
Contamination by human activity is another threat to the Antarctic ecosystem. Destruction of sensative habitats by researchers and tourists may be unintentional but a real source of damage. The introduction of invasive species will also negatively impact the Antarctic ecosystem. Insects, vegetation, and mammals, like rats and mice, may find comfortable habitats within human development. As climate change expands temperate regions, these invaders may be able to establish a foothold on the continent.
Unregulated economic development will have a significant impact on the continent. Since not all societies in the world adhere to treaties, the potential for mining or drilling activities is a concern. Such action will contribute to and accelerate the Antarctic environment’s contamination and increased climate concerns. The fragility of the Antarctic Desert is under attack by several issues.