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Polar Deserts

3 min read

Polar deserts: on the surface, these two words don’t seem to fit together. However, deserts aren’t always blazing hot—there is such a thing as a cold desert.

In fact, there are over 5,000,000 square kilometers of polar desert on Earth and they can be found in just two regions on Earth: in the northern hemisphere in the Arctic, and in Antarctica located in the southern hemisphere. It's likely that you will come across a polar dessert on your next polar expedition.

You can have the opportunity to explore a polar desert on many of our expeditions including the Antarctic Explorer: Discovering the 7th Continent, where you can experience the best of the stunning Antarctic Peninsula in 11 days or the Spitsbergen Explorer: Wildlife Capital of the Arctic expedition that explores the vast Arctic tundra.

Photo by Samantha Crimmin
Photo by Samantha Crimmin

What is a Polar Desert?

A polar desert is defined as a region with a mean temperature of less than 10 degrees Celsius during the warmest month and annual precipitation, including rainfall or snow, of no more than 250 millimeters.

Consisting primarily of gravel plains and bedrock, regions like these were more common during ice ages, due in large part to the freezing temperatures that encompassed most areas of Earth, as well as a lack of precipitation.

While not always the case, polar deserts are typically found at higher latitudes. For a better understanding of the weather associated with these regions, let’s examine the Antarctic polar desert for example. In this area, the coldest winter months usually have a mean temperature of -29 to -30 degrees Celsius making it the coldest desert in the world.

When the weather warms up, and the warmest month of the year rolls around, the temperatures remain in the range of a just few degrees Celsius and can dip to approximately -1 degree Celsius.

In terms of precipitation, the polar desert in Antarctica receives less than 40 millimeters per year. Furthermore, humidity during summer months ranges from 45 to 80 per cent. Surface liquid water is basically non-existent, except for a few hypersaline lakes that resist freezing.

Interesting fact: every polar desert region goes through a period of time, lasting nine to ten months, in which there is no sunlight that's called the Polar Night.


Arctic - by Samantha Crimmin
Arctic - Photo by Samantha Crimmin

Arctic polar deserts versus Antarctic polar deserts?

You might think aspects of a polar desert at one pole of the Earth is the same as what you would find at the other pole with icy temperatures, extreme conditions, and mountains covered in snow, rocks and ice, right? Not exactly. As you compare the cold deserts in the Polar Regions of the Arctic and Antarctic, several differences come to light. You'll see that whether you're exploring the Arctic or the Antarctic - there are many unique adventures awaiting those who visit.

The Arctic Desert

Located closer to the North Pole, the topography of the Arctic polar desert is defined as tundra, glaciers, and snow. Here are some key points in regards to the Arctic region:

  • Even with very little rain or precipitation and low temperatures, you might be surprised to find plants in the Arctic desert. In fact, approximately five per cent of the ground is covered in vegetation including plant growth and plant life
  • Home to approximately 350 vascular plant species who survive the cold temperatures
  • Shrubs range from five to 100 centimeters in height, with forbs not reaching any higher than 10 centimeters
  • Some animals call the Arctic desert home too including polar bears, the Arctic fox, and many species of Arctic birds

Svalbard - by Samantha Crimmin
Svalbard - Photo by Samantha Crimmin

The Antarctic Desert

The topography of the Antarctic polar desert is also defined as tundra, glaciers, and snow, however, there are some distinct features of the area:

  • The majority of Antarctica is polar desert
  • High wind speed and aridity create hypersaline lakes. Antarctica is home to the largest saline lake on the planet: Don Juan Pond
  • Up until extremophile organisms that can survive the extreme cold were found in the Antarctic region in the 1970s, it was believed that the Antarctic regions were free of any organisms. Scientists define "extremophiles" (the common term) as organisms that are able to live in extreme environments, such as those with conditions approaching or expanding the limits of what known life can adapt to, such extreme temperature, radiation, salinity, or pH level.
  • Life present in the Antarctic desert include algae, bacteria, thousands of penguins and seals

Photo credit: Tiffany Merritt

Visiting and Exploring Polar Deserts

As noted earlier, the Arctic and Antarctica are home to the world’s only polar deserts. Anybody who visits either region is in for the trip of a lifetime, as a polar desert provides a unique experience.

If you plan on taking this type of trip, it is important to be prepared for any and all weather conditions. For example, the weather in the coastal regions of Antarctica can quickly change. Dressing in layers will prepare you for just about anything that comes your way. Here is a list of essentials:

  • Waterproof boots
  • Parka
  • Waterproof over-pants
  • Gloves
  • Hat and scarf
  • Socks (long wool works best)
  • Outer clothing, such as wool or fleece sweaters
  • Base layers
  • Shoes (for use on the ship)
  • Backpack or knapsack for all your belongings

Read more about what to pack for visiting the Polar Regions

If you're wondering what a Quark Expeditions trip to a polar desert is really like, find out more from our Quark team member Dave, who has travelled with Quark for ten seasons.

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