Image: All Photos by Stephanie Krzywonos

The Last Desert

Pilgrimages on Antarctica’s wild ice. /

“This pure Land of the South has many gifts to squander upon those who woo her, chiefest of these gifts is that of her beauty. Next, perhaps, is that of grandeur and immensity, of giant mountains and limitless spaces, which must awe the most casual, and may well terrify the least imaginative of mortals.” — Apsley Cherry-Garrard, The Worst Journey in the World

When I first saw the world’s largest desert from an airplane, I did not see sand, as one might expect. I saw enormous cliffs of ice looming over the frozen ocean. And beyond them, the tops of mountains protruded from snowfields, like Michelangelo’s unfinished prisoners writhing out of raw marble. The ice in Antarctica is older than recorded history, yet the ice itself records time in layers like rings on a tree, engulfing whatever it can—air trapped between the arms of snowflakes, a lost mitten, an old tent, mountains, bodies.

I heard my co-workers refer to Antarctica, this white emptiness, as simply the Ice—and it was easy to see why. But Antarctica is anything but empty. It is filled to the brim.

Consider the weight and volume of its ice and snow: Antarctica’s twenty-seven thousand million billion tons of ice (that’s 54,000,000,000,000,000,000 pounds) is so heavy that it is pushing the land down beneath it. Antarctica is considered a desert because of its lack of precipitation, yet all of this ice—70 percent of the world’s freshwater—is from precipitation. Antarctica is the driest region in the world, and scientists estimate that its driest place, aptly named the Dry Valleys, hasn’t received precipitation in two million years. Even the second driest place on earth, a portion of Chile’s ...

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Also in this Issue

Issue 54 / August 4, 2016
  1. Editor's Note from August 04, 2016

    Issue 54: Antarctic ice, Alaskan bears, running mysteries, and wild babies. /

  2. His Hand Feeds Us Both

    Thoughts on bears from an Alaska fisherwoman. /

  3. What It Takes to Run

    The saying about running as “a controlled fall” is deeply true. /

  4. Aw and Wonder in the Baby Animal Kingdom

    A photographer looks at the wild’s cute, tiny, and vulnerable. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Issue 54: Links to amazing stuff.

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