Snowfields of Antarctica (photograph by Stephen Hudson, via Wikimedia)

As a continent, Antarctica is often overlooked. Its total surface area stands in excess of 14 million km², which places it ahead of Europe in terms of size — and makes it almost twice the size of Australia. As much as 98% of the continent’s surface is covered in thick, compacted ice, reaching an average depth of over a mile. The continent is beset by some of the fiercest winds on the planet, and temperatures have been reported to drop as low as −129 °F… the lowest temperature ever recorded anywhere.

Despite being the most inhospitable place on the planet however, recent scientific discoveries suggest that this forgotten continent – sometimes nicknamed the “Great White Desert” – may in fact have once been carpeted in forest.

The Forests of Antarctica

The discovery has come in the form of fossilized impressions of wood and leaves in the region of Antarctica’s Mount Achernar. Even the stumps of ancient tree trunks have been uncovered, believed to date back to prehistoric times.

The Mt Achernar Tree Trunk (photograph by Patricia E. Ryberg)

It is commonly accepted that during the late Permian and early Triassic periods, as much as 250 million years ago, the whole world would have been far hotter than it is today.

Sarah Feakins, a biogeochemist from the University of Southern California, posits that the Antarctic coast was once lined with beeches and conifers; based on evidence taken from leaf waxes found in sediment cores extracted from the Ross Ice Shelf.

A period of warmer climate around 15 million years ago, known as the Miocene period, could have had areas of the Antarctic resembling the kind of forested tundra seen today in New Zealand or parts of Chile. Chemical study of the leaf wax samples indicates that during the summer months, the coast of Antarctica could have been as warm as 15°F.

However, due to the extreme southern placement of the continent, even a warmer Antarctica would have been without light for months on end during the winter — while summer would have been one endless day. This raises the question of how plants were able to survive, the light required for photosynthesis being unavailable for months at a time.

The answers, claims Patricia Ryberg, Assistant Professor of Biology with Park University, can be found by studying these fossilized tree samples; “because trees record physiological responses,” she explained to Live Science.

During a recent research trip, Ryberg and her team collected samples from the fossilized wood in order to analyze the rings of these ancient trees. A pattern soon emerged in the cells, showing how the forests would grow upwards and outward before turning dormant for months at a time, storing carbon in their cells.

A view of the Riiser-Larsen Ice Shelf (photograph by Ben Holt, via NASA)

On analysis, the pattern of growth in the Antarctic tree samples showed habits typically associated with evergreen trees. However, the fossilized leaf impressions demonstrated what appeared to have been a matting effect, layers of plant tissue indicative of a forest shedding all of its leaves at once: a deciduous forest.

The research would seem to suggest then that these were mixed forests, containing both evergreen and deciduous tree populations.

Ryberg has also hypothesized that much of the ring structure in these samples shares characteristics with tropical trees. As tropical trees experience less of a seasonal effect, they are known to go through periods of short-term dormancy; a process that results in sporadic bursts of growth. This might well account for how the forests of Antarctica were able to survive during extended periods of darkness.

In the meantime, the discovery has given new strength to speculation about life in the Great White Desert.

Legends of the Great White Desert

Antarctica is devoid of native human settlements, although there are a number of research stations scattered across the continent generally catering to anywhere between 1,000 and 5,000 visitors at a time. Besides that, the only life forms to thrive in this lost continent are those creatures specifically adapted for the extreme cold temperatures; penguins, seals and their mites, algae, fungi, and bacteria.

The discovery of fossilized forests however, would seem to suggest that life had once been more abundant here.

Laubeuf Fjord and Webb Island (photograph by Vincent van Zeijst, via Creative Commons)

It’s not the first time that people have speculated about life in the extreme south. Such theories date back to antiquity; there were myths of a “Terra Australis” (or “Southern Land”) as early as the 15th century, when this mysterious mass began appearing on maps and atlases. Rather than basing such theories on survey though, it was a popular belief that the landmass in the northern hemisphere should logically be balanced by a similar mass in the south.

Antarctica was officially first sighted by an expedition of the Imperial Russian Navy in 1820. Within the next ten months both British and American ships would also confirm the sighting of a new continent.

By this time, the British explorer Matthew Flinders had already linked the name “Terra Australis” to Australia. In his 1814 book A Voyage to Terra Australis, Flinders wrote: “There is no probability, that any other detached body of land, of nearly equal extent, will ever be found in a more southern latitude.”

In 1929 this history would be challenged, however, with the discovery of a map drawn by the 15th century Turkish admiral Piri Reis. Reis’ map was inspected by the United States Hydrographic Institute, which was reportedly amazed by its accuracy as a comprehensive chart that predates the official discovery of Antarctica by 300 years.

More recently though, “evidence” has come to light which reinforces those ancient theories of Terra Australis — and has led many to speculate about ancient civilizations lost beneath the ice of Antarctica.

On one recent trip to the Antarctic, a team of American and European scientists discovered what they believed to be the tips of three ancient pyramids. The story captured the imagination of the Russian press, in particular. Voice of Russia radio reported that the team was keeping quiet about the discovery, but if the pyramids were revealed to be manmade, it would bring about “the biggest revision of human history ever made”.

A view of Mount Herschel (photograph by Andrew Mandemaker, via Creative Commons)

Already, some commentators are making the connection between a forested, pyramid-filled Antarctica and — brace yourself — the lost civilization of Atlantis.

For example, this video makes a fairly passionate case for the Atlantis theory, even claiming that supposedly blank map areas on the face of the southernmost continent hide secret buildings, deliberately kept from view by Google. It certainly makes for an entertaining four minutes of viewing.

Science, however, moves much slower than imagination. Back in the real world, Ryberg and her colleagues are now looking for clues as to how densely these forests grew compared to modern forests. It seems likely that we’ll hear more over the coming years about ancient life in the forests of Antarctica, but, attractive as the notion may sound, don’t go holding your breath for news of ancient Atlantean pyramids.

Polar Week is January 27 - 31, 2014 at Atlas Obscura. Follow along on Twitter (hashtag #PolarWeek), FacebookTumblrGoogle+, and Kinja