Thursday, April 21, 2011

The Real Down Under

Growing up, I always dismissed Antarctica. It's just a giant block of ice, I thought, and not worthy of any consideration unless that ice melts and floods our worlds. Sure, I knew that some scientists used it for research, primarily NASA, for examining space rocks. Other than that, I didn't think about it much (clearly). It was an uninteresting block of ice floating at the bottom of the planet, impassible and ultimately uninteresting. NOVA showed me to be absolutely wrong in just about everything I had assumed.
For one thing, it's actually a huge continent, a land mass covered in ice, not a free floating ice berg of some sort. Something had to serve as the anchor, after all- a fact obvious on reflection. Did you know it has mountains the size of the Appalachians buried under miles of ice? I didn't. I didn't know the ice was so thick that it compressed the earths surface in some places. In many ways, I just didn't know how big it was. I also didn't know that it was once a teeming forest, with as much life as the Amazon has today, and that it is a source of amazing fossils, containing plant-life literally flash frozen by wayward glaciers.
Did you know that Antarctica has ancient landscapes, unchanged for millions of years, free of ice? Or that NASA uses these very landscapes, so alien to anything on Earth as to be more similar to Mars, as testing grounds for some of their robots? Again, if you didn't, at least you have company in that ignorance. In fact, many of the rocks have sat exactly where they are for millions of years! It's hard not to be humbled by that knowledge, that rocks older than humans themselves exist in relatively unchanged form somewhere, today.
I highly encourage anyone to watch the linked episode of NOVA, it's full of amazing facts. My main takeaway? If global warming continues unabated, and the water levels do rise by the end of the century, at least we'll have land we can transplant the hundreds of millions of disenfranchised people to. At least one of the things I thought I knew was validated.
My only complaint? They refuse to pronounce the first C in Antarctica. But maybe that's just a pet peeve of mine.

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