Coldest Place: Antarctica
A Really "Cool" Place to Be a Scientist
Antarctica is the only continent that has never had an indigenous population of humans because it has always been such an extreme environment. Just the boat ride getting to the continent is over the most treacherous seas anywhere in the world. The inaccessibility of the place and the lack of reliable food and means for constructing shelter has kept humans away for thousands of years. But the new technologies developed over the last 200 years made it possible for people to reach these icy shores to explore and study the Antarctic for the first time in human history.
Since there are no people who claim Antarctica as their homeland, exploration of the continent has been shared by all nations of the world. Scientists from all over the world - Russia, Japan, the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South America, and many others - come to this place in an internationally cooperative agreement to study the truly unique qualities of Antarctica. Many scientific stations have been constructed on Antarctica to provide shelter and supplies for scientists doing field work there.
Some scientists actually live on Antarctica for part of the year to conduct their research. Very few scientists stay there more than six months at a time. The sun rises and sets only once a year at the South Pole, which means there are six months of daylight, followed by six months of darkness. During the winter when there is no sun, the Antarctic becomes an even more hostile place to be - colder than cold, BONE-CHILLING cold, and no daylight. Can you imagine living in darkness 24 hours a day? That would almost be like living out in space! Hey...
The World's Biggest Laboratory
At first, the scientific value of studying the Antarctic was just for the sake of understanding this strange place. Recently, scientists have theorized that the conditions in the Antarctic are similar to those on Mars. Because of the similarities exploration of the Antarctic has taken on a new meaning for the search for signs of life in the most extreme environments. Antarctica is not only fascinating itself, but serves as an excellent laboratory for studying the effects of space travel, developing new technologies for exploring other planets and finding extraterrestrial (yeah, alien) life.
Many, many fascinating things have been discovered in the Antarctic that have challenged some of our most basic ideas about what life on earth means. Some really cool factoids:
Believe it or not with all the ice in the Antarctic, there is very little actual snowfall or precipitation. It does snow on the ice during the austral winter, but measured on an annual basis the Antarctic is as almost as dry as the Sahara Desert.
Antarctic Ice - The Ultimate Cool
Many scientists study Antarctic ice because it is more than just ice. It has accumulated over time, layer upon layer, building up over the millennia to create a type of sedimentary rock. Yes, rock. Ice crystals can be considered a type of mineral, and glacial ice is composed of crystals of the "mineral" water. Just like sedimentary rock is created over time by the repeated layering of particles of clay or sand, glacial ice builds up over millions of years by the build up of snow that never melts.
Scientists drill down deep into the ice with a drill that works kind of like a cookie cutter, only it cuts out some really deep cookies of ice. These core samples contain many layers of ice that represent what the earth's atmosphere was like at the time each layer of ice was formed. By studying the layers of ice in the core samples scientists can learn about how the earth's atmosphere has changed over geologic time.
In the winter time the ocean around Antarctica freezes for thousands of miles in all directions. This vast expanse of ice surrounding the already immense Antarctic ice sheet covers over eleven million square kilometers. The annual freezing of the ocean around Antarctica generates deep ocean currents worldwide. Differences in ocean temperature are what cause weather all over the globe. Some scientists fear that if the global climate gets too warm or too cold it could affect the formation of Antarctic ice, changing the climate as we know it all over the world.
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