Is the Antarctic a Desert?
Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent on earth and nearly doubles in size in winter due to icing around its edges. Despite being almost entirely covered in ice, Antarctica is, by definition, a desert.
A desert is generally categorized as a place that receives less than 10 inches of annual rainfall . Receiving only 6.5 inches annually , Antarctica certainly fits the bill.
Antarctic Desert Facts
It's counterintuitive to think of Antarctica as "dry" when much of the landscape is made up of water in the form of ice. However, the perennially cold temperatures mean that this water is locked away in giant glaciers effectively rendering it useless, at least in terms of its ability to support life in the traditional way.
Some parts of the inner regions get less than 2 inches of precipitation annually, making it one of the driest places on earth. To put this into perspective, the Sahara Desert has a higher average annual rainfall than the icy, wild-blown Antarctic desert.
According to scientists, a region known as the McMurdo Dry Valleys is the driest place on earth, with no rainfall for an estimated two million years. Snow obviously counts toward the total precipitation of this desert. However, what little snow that falls doesn’t thaw in the freezing temperatures and is often blown away by strong winds — creating ice sheets and shelves.
While hardly considered "wet," the coastal regions of the continent get up to four times more precipitation than the interior, with an average annual rainfall of 7.8 inches.
Another interesting Antarctic desert fact is that it's the largest desert on the planet and covers a mind-blowing 5.4 million square miles making it as big as the United States and Mexico combined.
What life can survive in the deserts of Antarctica?
Despite the harsh and inhospitable conditions across the world’s most barren continent, life still exists. The animals and plants that brave these extreme conditions are called extremophiles and, despite the odds, still manage to flourish. Most plant life here is fungi or algae, which require much less water and sunlight than other forms of plant life to thrive. Nevertheless, two vascular plants live here — Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort, both of which are, astonishingly, flowering plants and can withstand temperatures below 32°F.
Although it might not conform to our preconceived ideas of a traditional desert landscape, Antarctica, with its lack of rainfall and dearth of fresh water, earns top ranking in a list of the world’s biggest deserts.