McMurdo Dry Valleys – Antarctica - Atlas Obscura

McMurdo Dry Valleys

One of the most extreme deserts in the world, these snow-free valleys harbor life, despite the hostile environment. 


In the farthest reaches of the world, where everything is white with blinding snow and ice, the clear McMurdo Dry Valleys are a striking anomaly. Ice and snow-free due to unique conditions, these valleys have intrigued researchers as the landscape on Earth that’s as close to Mars as we can currently get.

With 98% of its surface being covered in a mile-deep sheet of ice, Antarctica is the epitome of an unforgiving environment. Life is a rare occurrence in this severe climate, which is considered the driest, coldest, and windiest desert on planet Earth - but life has been found, in the most unlikely of places, and that unlikely place is the alien terrain of the McMurdo Dry Valleys.

Despite having no actual human population to speak of and only a smattering of wildlife, Antarctica is not a hopelessly barren wasteland. Between 1,000 to 5,000 people, mostly researchers and scientists, brave the hostile continent every year, inhabiting the unique “town” of McMurdo Station. From this central hub, researchers have made groundbreaking discoveries in and around the valleys. From water samples of Blood Falls revealing microbes with metabolic processes never before witnessed to bacteria hiding from the dry winds in the interior of rocks, the valleys have changed our notion of what it takes to sustain life.

While life does indeed thrive in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, don’t mistake them for a gentle oasis on the tundra. The lack of snow is not a sign of softness, but the result of 200 mph katabatic winds sucked down into the valleys by gravity and heating up as they pound toward the ground, evaporating any moisture in their wake. The mountains surrounding are high enough to prevent the ice sheet from covering the area, leaving naked, unyielding bedrock, scattered with loose gravel and the occasional ice wedge. This terrain full of mystery and surprises truly represents the tenacity of life and the possibility that it extends beyond the barriers we’ve assigned it.

Know Before You Go

As there are no roads of note best to use your much more reliable GPS - 77° 28′ 0″ S, 162° 31′ 0″ E. These will take you into the heart of the Antarctic Oasis

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