What might lurk beneath Antarctica’s 5 million square miles of ice was the subject of speculation by sci-fi writers in the 1930s. One of the icy products this subgenre of Antarctic Gothic horror spawned is HP Lovecraft’s novella, At the Mountains of Madness, in which scientists drill beneath Antarctica’s ice — only to discover horrid things preserved there. Now, scientists are finally enacting Lovecraft’s scenario: Over the next several weeks they are drilling into three subglacial lakes hidden beneath thousands of feet of ice in Antarctica.
What they will find as they sample the lakes and send cameras into their bellies remains to be seen. But one thing is already clear: Lovecraft was actually right about far more than his readers could have realized.
In Lovecraft’s story, a team of researchers from Miskatonic University flies into an unexplored region of Antarctica and bores through the ice. They discover fossil dinosaur bones with disturbing puncture and hacking wounds that cannot be attributed to any predators known to science. Soon after, they uncover the source of some of those wounds: fossils of a leathery-skinned beast with a “five-ridged barrel torso … around the equator, one at [the] central apex of each of the five vertical, stave-like ridges are five … flexible arms or tentacles.” The beast’s body is topped by a “five-pointed starfish-shaped” head.
[. . .]
Lovecraft wrote At the Mountains of Madness at a time when Antarctica’s interior remained mostly blank. Airplanes had only just begun to venture inward from the coasts — Robert Byrd made his famous, first-ever flight over the South Pole in 1928 — and Lovecraft’s novella, written in 1931, echoes that expedition. It’s easy to smirk at Lovecraft’s five-armed monsters, described ad nauseam, including precise dimensions in feet and inches. It’s easy to conclude that Lovecraft tried too hard to invent something that was truly alien.
But the ensuing decades have shown that Lovecraft was right on one profound matter: Antarctica’s cold wastes do indeed preserve some very old things, some of them dead — and some, still alive.
Geologists exploring one end of the Transantarctic Mountains (perhaps Lovecraft’s “mountains of madness”) have found shreds of plants, dead for up to 20 million years, protruding from the gravel and fluttering in the wind. These mosses represent the last stand that plants made on the continent before being extinguished by endless winter. The subsequent cold and dry have preserved them from decay. Plop a bit of this moss into a bowl of water and its delicate leaves and stems inflate like soft sponges. The scattered twigs of southern beech trees that are found here still contain enough organic matter that they smolder and smoke if placed over a flame.
Not all of the deep-time holdovers are dead, though. Antarctica’s cold coastal waters preserve an ecosystem like no other Earth. Scientists call it Paleozoic, reminiscent of between 250 and 540 million years ago. It is dominated by echinoderms, the ancient phylum of animals including starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, and lily-armed crinoids, whose bodies have five-fold symmetry — which brings us back to Lovecraft’s race of five-tentacled Elder Ones mummified beneath the ice.
“They sound like echinoderms to me,” said Richard Aronson, a veteran Antarctic marine biologist at Florida Institute of Technology. “Hilarious.”