Graveyard Shift
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The Continent Of Antarctica Is An Icy Land Of Mystery That Practically No One Can Get To

April 8, 2020 13.8k views12 items

Antarctica is the coldest and most forbidding place on earth, with temperatures that can reach nearly 90 degrees below zero Celsius,  so it is perhaps no surprise that there have been plenty of strange things found in Antarctica over the years. This icy land of mystery has fascinated explorers since before anyone had actually figured out how to get to Antarctica, and once explorers started to make their way there, the vast icy deserts and other unique features of Antarctica continued to thrill those in warmer parts of the world.

Even to this day, Antarctica remains the least populous and least explored continent on the planet. Its surface is frigid and trackless, making it difficult to explore and nearly impossible to survive. Yet, beneath the ice, researchers have found that Antarctica is teeming with improbable life, not to mention being the best place in the world to find meteorites.

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  • Pyramid-Like Formations Lead Some Theorists To Believe Ancient Civilizations Inhabited The Continent

    Like something out of an H.P. Lovecraft story, a pyramid-shaped mountain in the Heritage Range of Antarctica's Ellsworth Mountains became famous when online theorists began to hypothesize that the mountain's faces indicated craftsmanship rather than natural erosion. Theories ranged from an ancient civilization that had once called Antarctica home, to extraterrestrial architects.

    Scientists, however, suggested a more prosaic explanation: "It's just a mountain that looks like a pyramid," said Eric Rignot, professor of Earth science at UC Irvine. In fact, pyramid-shaped peaks aren't unheard of - the Matterhorn in the Alps is another famous example.

    The striking shape of the unnamed mountain in Antarctica likely comes from freeze-thaw erosion, according to Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College in Massachusetts. Freeze-thaw erosion occurs when snowmelt seeps into the mountain's cracks during warmer periods, then freezes overnight as the temperature falls. As the water freezes and expands, the cracks widen, which can lead to whole sheets of rock breaking off at once - hence the mountain's smooth, pyramid-like sides.

  • Photo: Peter Rejcek / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    ‘Blood Falls’ Is An Icy Reddish Sludge That Scientists Still Find Puzzling

    Though it sounds like something out of a horror movie, Antarctica really does boast a blood-red waterfall of half-frozen slush called "Blood Falls." The waterfall is even teeming with primeval microbes that have been isolated from the rest of the world for more than a million years. These ancient microbes live off sulfates in the water and may clue in scientists as to how life developed on Earth - and how it might develop on distant planets with less favorable environments.

    The microbes are not what give the falls their signature reddish hue, however. When the falls were first discovered oozing out of Taylor Glacier in Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys in 1911, scientists assumed that the discoloration was the result of algae.

    The actual answer is that, roughly 2 million years ago, the glacier trapped a pocket of saltwater that was left behind after the Ross Sea had flooded the region. This saltwater, which is also home to the aforementioned microbes, contains high concentrations of iron, which oxidizes when the saltwater comes into contact with oxygen, giving the falls their ominous color.

  • Photo: Josh Landis / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Mount Erebus Is A Crystal-Spewing Volcano That Erupts Up To Six Times A Day

    The world's southernmost active volcano has fascinated scientists ever since it was first discovered mid-eruption by Captain James Ross in 1841. Named after one of Ross's ships, which was later used by Captain John Franklin for his disastrous Antarctic expedition and served as the basis for Dan Simmons's novel The Terror, Mount Erebus has a number of unique characteristics that make it a favorite point of study for volcanologists and other researchers.

    For one thing, Mount Erebus is extremely active, erupting as frequently as six times per day during its most active period. During these eruptions, Erebus can spew steaming hot pieces of rock that are up to 10 meters wide and throw them more than a mile away. The volcano also regularly hurls out anorthoclase crystals - a type of feldspar - of an unusual size.

    Mount Erebus is also home to two, sometimes three, lakes of molten lava. One of these is 30 meters wide and results from natural convection. All these things combine to make Erebus a volcano that's bursting with scientific interest - sometimes literally.

  • East Antarctica Is A ‘Graveyard Of Continental Remnants’

    Ninety-eight percent of Antarctica's landmass is covered by sheets of ice more than a mile thick. These sheets obscure what's truly down there, but a satellite that was decommissioned in 2013 gave at least part of the answer. Called the "Ferrari of space," the Gravity Field and Steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) satellite was launched by the European Space Agency in 2009 and orbited the planet at an extremely low altitude for years, mapping "the gravitational fields weaving through Earth’s crust and mantle," according to journalist Robin George Andrews. 

    The data it collected revealed that the land beneath the ice in East Antarctica is "a jigsaw puzzle" made up of the remnants of former supercontinents, gigantic landmasses comprised of most of the planet's lithosphere.

    Andrews explains that among these geological remnants are parts of cratons - the "stable rocky cores of continents that survived hundreds of millions of years of destructive action by Earth's plate tectonics" - that resemble bedrock found in Australia, India, and the ocean floor.