The words “desert” and “polar” don’t seem to fit together, but that’s only because most of us associate deserts with sand-covered and sun-drenched areas that are always blazing hot. However, a desert is actually any desolate, waterless area without vegetation. So what is a polar desert? It’s a unique region with a mean temperature of less than 14ºF/-10ºC during the warmest month and an average annual precipitation of less than 250 mm (10 in) per year. In fact, there are over 5,000,000 square kilometers of the polar desert on our planet and, what’s more, they can be found in just two regions: the Arctic and Antarctica. Another interesting fact is that even if these remote and inhospitable areas seem inaccessible to ordinary tourists, that’s not quite so! For today, you may just come across such a desert on one of the polar expeditions to the Arctic or Antarctica, organized in abundance by special tourist companies.
To understand what the polar desert looks like, let’s examine the Antarctica region. Thus, Antarctica polar deserts cover more than 5.5 million square miles. This is an area larger than the Kalahari, Gobi, Arabian, and Sahara deserts combined. The Arctic polar deserts come in a close second at 5.4 million square miles. Impressive, isn’t it? The coldest months usually have a mean temperature of around -20ºF/-29ºC. However, the winter temperature can drop as low as -90ºF/-68ºC. In summer, the temperature may warm up to 30ºF/-1ºC. Besides, it is worth noting that every polar region goes through a long period of time without sunlight. It usually lasts from 9 to 10 months. Otherwise, there are nearly 24 hours of daylight during warmer months.
The next question is whether all polar deserts are the same. In fact, there are several important differences to highlight. So let’s compare the polar desert in Antarctica to that in the Arctic.
The first words that come to mind about the Antarctica polar desert are definitely snow, glaciers, and tundra. Nevertheless, there are some other features that distinguish this polar area from the Arctic one:
- Until recently, it was believed that the Antarctica polar desert was free of any living organisms. The situation changed only in the 1970s when some of the extremophile organisms were found in that region
- Antarctica is home to Don Juan Pond also called Lake Don Juan, the largest hypersaline water body on our planet nestled in Wright Valley
- About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice, so the majority of the continent is polar desert
That’s another region associated with snow, glaciers, and tundra. So what’s its difference compared to Antarctica?
- 5% of the ground in this region is covered in plants matter
- Approximately 1,700 species of plants live on the Arctic tundra
- Low growing shrubs may reach 40 cm in height
In this way, although the Arctic and Antarctica regions may seem the same, they are quite different. However, both of them are home to the world’s only polar deserts that are definitely worth seeing, at least, once in a lifetime!