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Applying the Unit Lens to Antarctica

What do the following have in common?

  • The length of your last bike ride
  • The temperature outside today
  • Your age

All these measurements have units. Miles, degrees Fahrenheit, years. In fact units define a measurement. I could also tell you that the units are meters, kelvin, and seconds, and the measurement would have to reflect this change.

Antarctica is a place of enormity, however it’s pretty easy to forget about this mysterious snowy continent. Check out any world map. Often Antarctica is completely missing or hugely distorted!

So if world maps are this misleading, how does the size of Antarctica actually compare to other parts of the world? I think comparing Antarctica to the continental US really puts it to scale. Antarctica is over 5 million square miles.

Image from NASA.gov

But what about the ~2.5 miles (4 km) of snow blanketing Antarctica? Maybe your mind conjures up images of snowy mountains like somewhere you ski in the winter? In fact that really isn’t the right image to have in your head.

Mountains (~10 feet)

Vs.

Antarctica (~13,000 feet)

Antarctica has snow that is up to 2.5 miles (~4 km) deep where as mountains get snow on the order of feet (meters) deep. So Antarctica has snow that is 1000% times deeper than mountain snow. This is comparing ~10 feet (mountains) to ~13000 feet (Antarctica). So essentially Antarctica is our “living proof” of what ice age conditions were like.

To help picture what 2.5 miles (~4 km) of snow is like, here’s a cross section revealing what Antarctica would look like if you cut it in half along the West to East black line in the inset. 

Source: J.W. White et al. 2007

This much snow applies a massive amount of weight on the continent below. You can see all this weight even pushes the level of the continent below sea level in some places (see the solid black horizontal line).

At this point you’re probably wondering about a very good question: How do we know how deep the ice is? How can we “see” through 2.5 miles (~4 km) of ice to know what the continent looks like beneath? Remember this is ground no human has ever set foot on.

Stay tuned for more on this next time!

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