Whether you believe it or not, global warming is real. Since 1880, the average global temperature has risen by 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit according to NASA, and this has caused catastrophic loss of ice at Earth’s poles. Since 1995, Arctic ice levels have decreased by as much as 40% of their historical average, and the rate at which ice is disappearing is increasing alarmingly fast. As of now, Antarctica is losing ice at a rate of 129 Gigatonnes per year, with Greenland and the Arctic losing 286 Gigatonnes per year.
If these rates of ice loss continue, scientists project a catastrophic rise in sea levels that will put nearly every coastal city at risk. Just over 10% of the world’s population lives in or near coastal cities, making them all vulnerable to catastrophic weather and future displacement.
Besides the obvious doom and gloom from the polar ice caps melting, humanity can expect to make quite a few discoveries as well. The miles-thick ice sheets that covered the poles of our world has hidden away countless species from closer inspection, as well as been a near-impenetrable barrier to resource exploration. When the ice is gone we can give both the Arctic and Antarctic a second look to see what we might have missed on our first pass. And what we’re likely to find might surprise you.
Here’s 15 things we’ll likely discover beneath the polar ice caps.
15. Russian Submarines
The Russian navy has long been known as the world’s foremost expert on arctic navigation. Since the first World War when Russian destroyers safeguarded allied transports in the Barents Sea to modern day with naval bases all along Russia’s northernmost coast, there’s no other navy in the world used to operating in such an extremely frigid environment.
One way Russia uses the polar caps to their advantage is by station numerous nuclear-powered submarines beneath the ice to shield them from the prying eyes of satellites and aircraft. A full two-thirds of Russia’s ballistic missile submarines are stationed in the Arctic, ready to break through the ice and launch a nuclear retaliatory strike on a moment’s notice.
14. Frozen Dinosaur Remains
We’re not likely to find a completely preserved tyrannosaurus corpse frozen in the Arctic glaciers, but we are likely to find some prehistory beasties in the glaciers, albeit ones that are likely in various states of decomposition.
The Antarctic ice sheet is about 45 million years old, making it possible to contain primitive mammals like the Cernaysia, the Stygimys, and the Tillodontia – all animals you’ve never heard of before due to the awful publicity prehistoric species’ received in the post-dinosaur era. Seriously, Tillodonita should fire their agent.
13. Nuclear Waste
Nuclear waste is a problem for every power plant with a nuclear reactor. So far, our solutions as a species range from burying it deep underground to storing it in massive warehouses and locking the door and throwing away the key.
A few countries had the brilliant idea of tossing nuclear waste into the Arctic. The United States tried to power a military base in Greenland using a nuclear reactor but later abandoned the base and reactor to the elements. The reactor then broke down and started spewing radiation. Russia tried to scuttle several derelict submarines in the Arctic Ocean, which will undoubtedly cause problems as people begin to explore more of the North. Even Japan, that bastion of recycling and waste management, dropped tons of nuclear waste into the ocean around the Arctic. The Northern climes are practically a ticking time bomb for a nuclear disaster.
12. Dead Bodies
Remember how a bunch of explorers went up North and then got trapped in the ice and died a frozen death? Those bodies don’t always get eaten by wildlife. Sometimes, the extreme dryness and coldness actually mummifies the remains, leaving the body to be discovered years later. Sometimes, even centuries.
Sometimes even millennia.
Take the case of Ötzi the Iceman, the ancient human discovered in the Ötztal Alps on the border between Austria and Italy. Ötzi is over 5000 years old, his corpse surprisingly well preserved due to the extreme cold and lack of moisture. Scientists were able to determine a lot about ancient humans from Ötzi, including how many diseases you could get without the benefit of modern medicine (hint: it’s a lot).
Normally when a meteor comes barreling towards the Earth it breaks up in the atmosphere into a bunch of tiny pieces and those pieces rain down as a bunch of flaming rocks. Sometimes, larger meteors will retain their mass and even strike the ground, causing devastation depending on the size of the meteor. Despite the fact they’ve struck the ground, there’s usually a point in the crater that still contains the core of the meteor.
That’s what happens if a meteor strikes land. A meteor striking ice follows mostly the same process but is better preserved by the ice as it melts on top of it and refreezes. We don’t keep a careful eye on meteors landing in the polar zones (since there’s nothing really there to be concerned about), but we know there are meteors there that we could go looking for as the ice melts. So long as it doesn’t melt too much and fall into the ocean.
10. The Northwest Passage
Explorers have been searching for a passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans via the Arctic for a very long time. Humanity eventually determined it was simply too dangerous to reliably pass from one ocean to the other via the Arctic, and the Northwest Passage faded as a failed dream.
With the melting ice, that dream has been reborn. Sending ships to the Panama Canal is not only time consuming for any country far north of the equator, but also expensive as you must pay for both fuel and tolls to pass through the canal. Traveling via the Arctic Ocean and Canadian archipelago would be faster, cheaper, and allow larger ships since the Panama canal can’t handle the biggest ships that ride the waves.
9. New Wildlife
We know there are animals in the Arctic and Antarctic biomes. Mostly because they’ve been prominently featured on the BBC network’s Planet Earth series of TV shows, but also because we’ve sent various expeditions there to chronicle and categories the life found there. We’ve also sent unmanned submersibles deep below the Arctic ice to see what undersea creatures live there, and found a surprising diversity of life.
But compared to everywhere else on Earth, we’ve spent very few resources see what’s living at the most extreme ends of the planet. There could easily be hundreds of undiscovered species living on, below, or even possibly inside the ice. The tragedy is, as the ice melts we’ll likely discover many species but also cause many of them to go extinct as their homes melt away.
8. Ancient Anthrax
In 2016, an outbreak of anthrax killed over 2000 reindeer and infected 13 people in Siberia. Anthrax isn’t likely to be found anywhere in the icy fields of Siberia, so where could it have come from?
The answer: a reindeer infected by anthrax as old as a century ago that wandered into the northern wastes and was then buried in the snow. Global warming then melted the ice covering the corpse, allowing the dormant anthrax spores to re-emerge and infect the living 100 years later.
7. Ancient Viruses
Anthrax spores can lay dormant for quite a long time, but nothing beats a virus for longevity. Along with Siberian anthrax, scientists discovered ancient viruses that could be unleashed on the world once the ice melts.
What’s interesting is that, just like ancient dinosaurs, these viruses are huge! Over 16 times as large as the standard cold virus (or rhinovirus if you’re feeling fancy). They were found in soil samples beneath the Siberian permafrost, an area of the globe that people are starting to pay more attention to since it will likely mimic what happens in the Antarctic.
6. Pockets of Methane Gas
The worst thing about global warming is how as the ice melts it will release more greenhouse gases that will cause climate change to occur even faster. Frozen inside the polar ice caps are pockets of natural gas, such as methane, that once released will contribute to global warming even if we were to stop all greenhouse gas emissions overnight.
Many scientists believe that at the rate the ice caps are melting it’s already too late to prevent catastrophic warming. The gas that’s emitted while the ice melts will continue to melt the remaining ice as it warms the planet, dooming us all to a Water World-esque future of rising sea levels and temperatures.
What’s worse we can’t tap into these pockets of trapped gas like we do underground deposits. The gas is all housed in tiny bubbles that are impossible to mine with current technology, as pictured above.
5. Wrecked Ships
There used to be a ton of explorers searching around the Arctic and Antarctic. Some of them were looking for riches, others for new trade routes, and still others were just looking to see what was there. Most of them found the ice to be a little too treacherous, with many losing their lives.
Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin was one such captain trying to find a passage to from the Pacific to Atlantic Oceans via the Arctic. In theory, it would greatly reduce travel time around the globe and vastly improve shipping between Europe and colonies in the Pacific.
But his ships got trapped in the ice and they all froze to death. His ships were only rediscovered in 2014, and they weren’t even that far North. There’s bound to be even more wrecked ships discovered as the ice melts and more people start to poke around the former ice sheets.
This may come as a surprise to many of you, but Antarctica isn’t just this giant continent of ice and snow. I mean, it’s covered in ice and snow, but beneath the ice is an actual continent filled with rocks and dirt and god knows what else.
Right now at least, getting to the land parts of Antarctica is a little tricky. You’d have to bore through nearly 2 kilometers of ice before you’d hit rock, and you’re unlikely to find anything living beneath.
It’s believed that the Arctic ice sheet hides no such continental land mass as its Antarctic cousin, but technology isn’t bulletproof. It’s possible that some small islands are hiding deep under the ice, just waiting to appear once the ice melts. Of course, if the ice does melt the islands might immediately disappear beneath rising sea levels.
This is the reason you occasionally hear Canada, Russia, Europe and America get into a tizzy on Arctic politics. It’s believed that there could be vast reserves of oil buried underground beneath the Arctic ice. The ice sheet’s plastic nature, as well as its brutally cold temperatures, makes drilling impossible currently, but if the ice melts there’d be nothing stopping anyone from floating a giant oil rig North and drilling for oil beneath the former Arctic ice.
So far, Russia has claimed the vast majority of the territory currently covered in ice, arguing that its continental shelf extends into much of the Arctic Ocean and even planting a flag on the seabed at the North Pole. Canada responded angrily, saying that its continental shelf actually extends to the North Pole and submitting evidence of such to the United Nations. Neither side is expected to hear back on the issue until late 2018.
Given that Antarctica is known to have some pretty solid landmass, we’re also likely to find some interesting geographical features such as hot springs, geysers, and even volcanoes.
Satellites have noticed for years heat sources beneath the kilometers-thick ice and postulate that it could be due to volcanic activity. After all, what else could be causing a heat spike that far underneath the thickest ice on Earth?
Although nowhere near a fault line, it’s thought that volcanism is due to a mantle plume, that is, an upwelling of abnormally hot rock from the Earth’s crust. It sometimes gets hot enough to break through the crust and appear on earth as a volcano.
1. Under-Ice Lakes
All that under-ice volcanism has given Antarctica another interesting feature: under-ice lakes. Heat from molten rock melts the lowest layer of ice and traps it as lakes. It’s theoretically possible that primitive life forms could even be living inside these lakes, much like organism live near undersea vents in the Arctic Ocean.
Not all of these lakes are completely sealed, however. Meltwater from the glaciers pools in some lakes before it’s dumped into the ocean. These lakes can drain rather quickly due to the amorphous nature of ice, causing specific areas of the Ocean around the continent to be less salty than others.
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