Skeptophilia (skep-to-fil-i-a) (n.) - the love of logical thought, skepticism, and thinking critically. Being an exploration of the applications of skeptical thinking to the world at large, with periodic excursions into linguistics, music, politics, cryptozoology, and why people keep seeing the face of Jesus on grilled cheese sandwiches.

Wednesday, November 1, 2023

The shroud of ice

It's hard to imagine Antarctica as anything but a frozen wasteland.  Bitterly cold even in summer, barely any precipitation (if it were warmer, Antarctica would be classified as a desert), much of the continent buried under a sheet of ice hundreds of meters thick.  The central "dry valleys" of Antarctica were used as a proving ground for the Mars rovers -- because it was the place on Earth that's the most like Mars.

It's kind of cool that H. P. Lovecraft, writing early in the twentieth century, recognized that this icy and inhospitable land might not always have been that way.  In one of his best short stories, "At the Mountains of Madness," we find out that the continent was once inhabited.  And by "once," I mean long before Homo sapiens appeared on the African savanna.  The denizens of the place -- the "Elder Things" -- were bizarre beasts with five-way symmetry and brains far more advanced than ours, and they built colossal edifices (invariably described as "eldritch" and "cyclopean") which, in the context of the story, are the subject of a scientific investigation.

And being that this is Lovecraft we're talking about, it did not end well.

Even more interesting is his story "The Shadow Out of Time," wherein we find out that the Elder Things amassed the information they have by using their eldritch (of course) technology to switch bodies -- they can flip their consciousness with a member of another sentient species anywhere in time and space, spend a year or two learning about the species and its culture, then flip back and write down what they found out.  The Elder Things lived in Antarctica a hundred million years ago, at which time the frozen continent was a warm, lush, humid jungle.  Listen to how one of their unwilling visitors, a human man from the early twentieth century, describes the place:
The skies were almost always moist and cloudy, and sometimes I would witness tremendous rains.  Once in a while, though, there would be glimpses of the Sun -- which looked abnormally large -- and the Moon, whose markings held a touch of difference from the normal that I could never fathom.  When -- very rarely -- the night sky was clear to any extent, I beheld constellations which were nearly beyond recognition.  Known outlines were sometimes approximated, but seldom duplicated; and from the position of the few groups I could recognize, I felt I must be in the Earth's southern hemisphere, near the Tropic of Capricorn.
The far horizon was always steamy and indistinct, but I could see that great jungles of unknown tree ferns, Calamites, Lepidodendron, and Sigillaria lay outside the city, their fantastic fronds waving mockingly in the shifting vapors...  I saw constructions of black or iridescent stone in glades and clearings where perpetual twilight reigned, and traversed long causeways over swamps so dark I could tell but little of their towering, moist vegetation.
Lovecraft's prescience was shown when plate tectonics was discovered, twenty years after the author's death.  Antarctica wasn't always centered at the South Pole, and in fact had drifted in that direction from somewhere far nearer to the equator.  Since Lovecraft's time, fossils of temperate-climate organisms have been found in abundance, indicating that the climate had shifted dramatically, just as he'd said.

And shrouded underneath thousands of meters of ice, that primordial terrain is waiting to be studied.

Artist's conception of the ancient Antarctic rain forests [Image credit: James McKay of the Alfred Wegener Institut]

That colossal task has been taken on by a team led by glaciologist Stewart Jamieson of Durham University, who led a research project to use a remote telemetry technique called radio-echo sounding to map, for the first time, what's underneath the East Antarctic Ice Sheet, one of the most inhospitable places on Earth.  The region is home to the coldest temperatures ever recorded -- below -80 C -- and experiences katabatic winds (winds caused by cold air rushing downhill from higher elevations) in excess of three hundred kilometers per hour.  

Not a place most of us would choose to visit.  But Jamieson and his team did -- spending whole seasons traversing the continent with their sensors.  The result was a "ghost image," a map showing sharply-peaked, river-carved hills and a hollow that probably was once a massive lake.  The topography reminded Jamieson of Snowdonia in Wales.

"It's an undiscovered landscape," Jamieson said.  "No one's laid eyes on it.  The ice sheet that covers it has been there for at least fourteen million years, perhaps longer.  The land under the East Antarctic Ice Sheet is less well-known than the surface of Mars."

No word on whether his team saw signs of any eldritch and cyclopean architecture.

Despite the fact that I've known for many years that the continents move around and climates change, I'm always a little blown away when I consider how different things are now from even the relatively recent geological past.  And, of course, that the current configuration we have now will itself change as plate tectonics (and human messing-about) alters the Earth's ecosystems.  It may be true that in the span of a human lifetime -- as the famous song by Kansas put it -- it may seem like "nothing lasts forever but the Earth and sky," the truth is that given a long enough time scale, Tennyson hit closer to the mark:
There rolls the deep where grew the tree.
O Earth, what changes hast thou seen?
There, where the long road roars
Has been the stillness of the central sea.
The hills are shadows, and they flow
From form to form, and nothing stands,
They melt like mists, the solid lands,
Like clouds, they shape themselves and go.


No comments:

Post a Comment