Discover amazing facts about Antarctica!

It is the least explored continent and to date it is estimated that fewer than 200,000 people have set foot onto the continent or its surrounding islands. It is important to note that a great many included in this number are tourists traveling to Antarctica on cruise ships. They often take short hikes along the coast of the northern Antarctic Peninsula to marvel at the stunning beauty of Antarctica. Usually people who have travelled there are scientist studying organisms living in a largely unspoiled environment, climate change and to get further clues about the origins of the Universe. Germany has had a year-round research station in Antarctica since 1982.

1) What is the continent of Antarctica like?

The Antarctic continent is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent on earth. More than 99% of its landmass is covered with ice up to 4 km thick in some regions. All this ice makes up about 70% of the world’s freshwater supply.  Canada’s freshwater supply is about 7 percent. Antarctica is generally sub-divided into two main regions. East Antarctica (Greater Antarctica), lies east of the Greenwich Meridian and west of 180 degree of longitude.  West Antarctica (Lesser Antarctica) which also includes the Antarctic Peninsula extends mostly west of the Greenwich meridian and east of 180 degree of longitude. West Antarctica is actually an extension of the Andes Mountains originating from South America.

The two areas of Antarctica are separated by the Transantarctic Mountains. This mountain range stretches across the entire continent, mostly buried under the ice cover. Outcrops of rock where one of the taller parts of the Transantarctic Mountains pierce up through the ice sheet are called 'Nunataks'. They give Antarctica its majestic aura and somewhat amazingly can be home to birds such as snow petrels that may build their nests here.

2) How big is Antarctica and where is it?

Antarctica is the fifth largest of the seven continents. It is situated over the South Pole almost entirely south of latitude 66°30' south (the Antarctic Circle). The exact landmass is not known because many regions are covered in a permanent sheet of ice which transitions to shelf ice covering bays and other geographic features. Antarctica is roughly circular in shape the long arm of the Antarctic Peninsula stretching towards South America. There are two large indentations, the Ross and Weddell seas and their ice shelves.

The total surface area (including all islands and ice shelves) is about 14.2 million sq km, which is approximately twice the size of Australia, one and a half times as big as Canada and forty times the size of Germany.
In the winter Antarctica doubles in size due to the sea ice that forms around the coasts. The true boundary of Antarctica is actually not the coastline of the continent itself or the outlying islands, but the Antarctic Convergence. The Antarctic Convergence, better known as the Antarctic Polar Frontal Zone (or "Polar Front" for short), is a line encircling Antarctica where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet and mix with the relatively warmer waters of the sub-Antarctic. Antarctic waters predominantly sink beneath sub-Antarctic waters, while associated zones of mixing and upwelling create a zone very high in marine productivity.

Antarctica is the highest continent on earth. The average elevation is 2500 meters. The height of the South Pole is 2835 meters. The Vinson Massif is the highest mountain in Antarctica, at 4897 meters. The lowest point found is the Bentley Subglacial Trench (2499 meters below sea level) in West Antarctica. This trench is covered with more than 3000 meters of ice and snow.

The nearest land mass is South America, about 1000 km away across the roughest stretch of water in the world - the Drake Passage. The distance to Australia is about 2500 km and to South Africa about 4000 km.

3) What is the weather like in Antarctica?

Cold! The lowest temperature ever recorded anywhere on earth, -89.2° C was on July 21st 1983 at the Russian base at the Southern Geomagnetic Pole. It is close to the Pole of Inaccessibility, the point on the Antarctic continent that is the furthest from any other and so the most difficult or inaccessible place to get to. Eastern Antarctica is colder than its western counterpart because of its higher elevation. Weather fronts rarely penetrate far into the continent, leaving the center cold and dry.

The continent is not only cold but also exposed to strong winds; calm periods are rare and typically last hours rather than days. A wind speed of 320 km/h (200 mph) was recorded at the French Dumont d'Urville base in July, 1972 (Antarctic winter). In the interior, however, wind speeds are typically moderate.

In Antarctica, katabatic winds flow down the coastal slopes under the influence of gravity and as air cools and becomes denser over the pole. When they reach the coast, they produce west-flowing ocean current known as the East Wind Drift as a result of the rotation of the earth, which has an influence far beyond the immediate coastline.

4) Does it snow in the Antarctic

Heavy snowfalls are not uncommon on the coastal portion of the continent, where snowfalls of up to 1.22 meters (48 inches) in 48 hours have been recorded. In the interior however there is almost zero precipitation. In some places like the Dry Valleys, it is likely no precipitation has occurred for thousands of years.

5) Is the Antarctic (South Pole) colder than the Arctic (North Pole)?

In general the southern polar region is much colder than its northern counterpart. This is due to the fact that as much as 90% of incoming solar radiation is reflected back into space by the Antarctic ice-sheet. The other 20% is mostly absorbed by the atmosphere or reflected by clouds. The Antarctic is also colder than the Arctic because it cools down faster. However Antarctica gets warmer faster than the Arctic because the Ocean water carries heat from the equator to the poles. The landmass of Antarctica heats up faster than the waters of the Arctic. Because the South Pole is colder than the North Pole, the Southern hemisphere has stronger winds than the Northern hemisphere.

6) Are there any interesting weather phenomena in Antarctica?

Given the latitude, long periods of constant darkness or constant sunlight, Antarctica creates climates unfamiliar to human beings in much of the rest of the world. The aurora australis (the southern lights) is a glow observed in the night sky near the South Pole created by the plasma-full solar winds that pass by the Earth.

Another unique spectacle is 'diamond dust', a ground-level cloud composed of tiny ice crystals. It generally forms under otherwise clear or nearly clear skies, so people sometimes also refer to it as clear-sky precipitation. A so called 'sun dog', a frequent atmospheric optical phenomenon, is a bright "spot" beside the true sun.

7) Are there seasons in Antarctica?

Because of the earth's tilt and orbit around the sun, the poles receive less energy and heat from the sun. This results in only two polar two seasons—summer and winter. In summer at the poles, the sun does not set, and in winter the sun does not rise. A year in Antarctica therefor consists of six months of daylight and six months of darkness.

8) What is it like being on the Ice?

The ice cap is far from being a contiguous smooth sheet, as it is continuously moving. Glaciers, huge rivers of ice drain the interior of the continent and form ice shelves at the coasts. Where a glacier is moving, the ice cracks and is ruptured by the underlying rock and also by different ice streams moving at different speeds. The ice sheet is therefore very dangerous in places as it is broken up by great crevasse fields with some cracks hundreds of feet deep and frequently covered by flimsy bridges formed of blown snow. It is also thought that there may be some areas of volcanism under the ice sheet. In some places glaciers and ice streams are flowing very quickly, possibly caused by being lubricated from underneath by flowing water formed by volcanic activity melting the ice.

Other formations of ice one would see in Antarctica are Sastrugi. These are sharp irregular grooves or ridges formed on a snow surface by wind erosion and snow deposits. They differ from sand dunes in that the ridges are parallel to the prevailing winds. Travel on the irregular surface of sastrugi can be very tiring, and traversing sastrugi bears great stress on the equipment as well- ripples and waves are often undercut, the surface is hard and unforgiving with constant minor topographic changes between ridge and trough.

9) Are there any plants or trees?

There are no trees in all of Antarctica. There is some exposed rock and the only plants are very small mosses, fungi and lichens, about 350 species in total (although it was once heavily vegetated - millions of years ago) There are over 700 species of algae recorded and most notably several species that actually grow inside rock, instead on the outside.

Lichens have been discovered growing on isolated mountains within 475 km of the South Pole. In some places bare rocks are colonised by vibrant red, orange and yellow growths of lichens. Where rock is uncovered by ice for large parts of the summer, green lichens that grow to a few centimetres high can give the impression from a distance of a field of dark grass. Three species of flowering plants are also found on the Antarctic Peninsula.

10) Are there any animals in Antarctica?

Contrary to popular belief, there are no polar bears in Antarctica. In fact, there are no land based vertebrate animals at all. The largest purely terrestrial animal in Antarctica is a flightless midge (Belgica Antarctica) which is about 12 millimetres in size. Due to the extreme cold, the body fluids of this midge and other mites in Antarctica contain glycerol, a type of antifreeze liquid that protects them from solidifying when temperatures plummet to as low as ?34 °C.

The oceans surrounding the continent on the other hand are teeming with great quantities of life. Large numbers of whales feed on the rich marine life, especially krill. Six species of seals and 12 species of birds live and breed in the Antarctic. Crab-eater seals are the second most numerous large mammals on the planet after humans.

But of course the most well-known resident of Antarctica has to be the penguin. Of the 17 species of penguins, only four breed on the Antarctic continent itself: the Adelie, the Emperor, the Chinstrap and the Gentoo penguins.

In fact, early Antarctic explorers actually thought penguins were fish and classified them accordingly. As birds, they are superbly designed for their job, flying underwater with great skill and elegance. Their compact bodies have a breastbone that makes an excellent keel and they have massive paddle muscles to propel them at speeds up to 40 kilometres per hour. Their heads retract to create a perfect hydrodynamic shape. When traveling quickly, penguins will leap clear of the water every few feet -- an action called 'porpoising.' This enables them to breathe, and decreases their chances of being taken by a predator. Antarctic penguins have also developed the ability to leap out of the water to a substantial height on land, enabling them to quickly reach the safety of raised ice or rock ledges. Penguin legs are set far down on their bodies, so they walk with a very erect posture. Ashore they are often awkward, waddling and hopping over rocks; on snow they sometimes push themselves along on their stomachs.

11) Did you know...

  • Antarctica is the best place in the world to find a meteor. To date over 9000 fragments have been found on the ice.
  • Depending on the species, a wild penguin can live 15-20 years. During that time, they spend up to 75 percent of their lives at sea.
  • Fifty million years ago Antarctica had a temperate climate, evergreen forests and many more kinds of animals than it has today. As the icecap slowly formed, most of the animals that lived there in ancient times were obliterated. Evidence of this once warm climate is in the fossils of plants, including fossil ferns, found by scientists.
  • Antarctica was first discovered around 1820. Several sailors reported seeing the landmass.
  • Antarctica was officially declared to be a continent in 1840.
  • 2011 is the centennial of the first successful expedition to the South Pole. In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole.