Depending on the sorts of sites you frequent on the Internet, you may have caught wind of a rather head-spinning idea: the possible existence of manmade pyramids in ice-locked, almost wholly uninhabited (aside from scientists and research-base staff) Antarctica.
Is it true? Are there really hidden or half-hidden monuments under Antarctica’s ice sheet? If so, who built them—aliens? Ancient vanished Antarctic civilizations, or far-ranging Polynesians?
Well, we don’t want to ruin the suspense, but let’s cut to the chase: There’s no evidence for human-constructed pyramids on the White Continent. The features that seem to suggest such structures are “nothing” more than Mother Nature’s good old-fashioned topography, which can be downright spectacular here at the bottom of the world.
The notion of long-ago human societies—maybe even pyramid-building ones—around the South Pole is not really a new one, and only one of a slew of conspiracy theories and wild speculations (Nazi UFOs, etc.) that this most farlung and mysterious of all continents has inspired. Some such theories point to the geologic reality that Antarctica once enjoyed a warmer climate, with areas of lush vegetation, as evidence that bygone peoples might have been able to settle on what’s now mostly a frozen, brutally cold wilderness.
Talk of Antarctic pyramids really revved up in 2016, thanks to the release of satellite imagery that showed a cluster of pyramidal cones in the southern Ellsworth Mountains (the loftiest mountain range in Antarctica). Most striking in particular was a black, snow-smeared tooth whose keen edges, slanted triangular faces, and sharp summit point seemed to suggest nothing else than a carbon copy of Egypt’s Great Pyramid of Giza transported to the polar wastes.
While a flurry of headlines claiming “pyramids discovered in Antarctica” resulted, geologists—those rock-and-mineral-obsessed specialists whose perspectives are geared toward deep time—weren’t having it.
The “pyramids,” these experts pointed out, were simply mountain peaks, planed and otherwise shaped by decidedly unmysterious—though still, of course, extraordinary—geomorphic (that is, landform-building) processes.
The main attention-grabbing “pyramid” captured in the satellite image is a roughly 2-square-kilometer, 4,150-foot peak in that southern, lower section of the Ellsworth Mountains known as the Heritage Range.
A November 2016 article in Live Science debunking its rumored artificial origin quoted glaciologist Eric Rignot of the University of California-Irvine: “This is just a mountain that looks like a pyramid.”
Indeed, the Heritage Range peak appears to be a textbook example of perhaps the most impressive category of mountain shapes: the pyramidal peak or glacial horn. Such a mountain has been carved into on multiple faces by adjoining glaciers, which whittle out concave cirques that converge at the summit to form a toothy point. The most dramatic of these horns have three or four faces separated by knife-edge ridges called arêtes, enunciating the prominence and sharpness of the summit.
A four-faced pyramidal peak is often termed a matterhorn, named after the Matterhorn itself: that 14,692-foot fang of the Pennine Alps that’s probably the best-known example of a glacial horn on Earth.
As Mauri Pelto, a professor of environmental science at Nichols College and director of the North Cascade Glacier Climate Project, told Live Science, the striking symmetry of the Antarctic pyramidal peak suggests a mountain on which weathering and erosion have worked away in the same basic rock type, resulting in fairly even sculpting on all sides. Besides the active scraping-away of glacial ice, freeze-thaw weathering—wherein water infiltrates crevices in rock, then expands when frozen to enlarge them—has likely helped hone this Heritage Range horn’s shape across the eons.
Just as striking as the peak itself in the satellite imagery is its triangular shadow, which really illustrates the perfection of its pyramidal form. A couple of smaller and less symmetrical horns stand nearby (including a little satellite peak to the immediate southwest that looks a bit like a miniaturized version of the mountain in question), and the main pyramid’s northeast ridge connects with a partly ice-drowned crest that leads to a bigger and higher exposure of Heritage Range summits.
This unnamed mountain is not only an example of a glacial horn, but also a nunatak: that is, a rock summit rising out of and entirely surrounded by ice. Given the vast majority of Antarctica is buried by ice sheets, and given the rugged and often high mountains that compose its bedrock terrain, it’s no surprise that nunataks—which take their name from an Inuit word—are so common on the White Continent.
Pelto also pointed out to Live Science that despite the sudden Google Earth fame of the pyramidal peak in the Heritage Range, it wasn’t some previously hidden feature freshly exposed out of the ice. He also speculated that the seasonal Patriot Hills Base Camp not too far to the south might afford a view of the horn.
While that Heritage Range horn that fired up people’s imaginations in 2016 lacks a formal name, there are actually quite a few mountain peaks in Antarctica with “Pyramid” in their official label.
Over in the Royal Society Range, for example, there’s The Pyramid itself, a peak named by the British Antarctic Expedition of 1910-1913 which edges the Koettlitz Glacier. There’s another Pyramid near the head of Hope Bay on the Antarctic Peninsula: a 1,854-foot (565-meter) nunatak that the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1904 christened.
A 6,955-foot (2,120-meter) horn in the Quartermain Mountains, set between Turnabout and Beacon valleys, is one of several Antarctic peaks, meanwhile, known as Pyramid Mountain. Others include a Pyramid Mountain along the Ferrar Glacier, which drains to McMurdo Sound, and a 9,217-foot (2,810-meter) summit in the Churchill Mountains that’s also alternatively called Mount Pyramid.
While no evidence suggests ancient civilizations erected Antarctica pyramids, the White Continent’s human history is still rather fascinating, with, for example, some continued debate over whether Polynesian navigators may have paddled their way into Antarctic waters many centuries ago.
Read more about when people may have first clapped eyes on Antarctica—and come ashore—right here!
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