Antarctica is situated in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. At 5.4 million square miles [14.0 million square kilometers], it is the fifth-largest continent in area after Asia, Africa, North America, and South America. As a comparison, Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages 1.2 miles [1.9 kilometers] in thickness, which extends to all but the northernmost reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Antarctica, on average, is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents. Antarctica is considered a desert, with annual precipitation of only 8 inches [200 mm] along the coast and far less inland. The temperature in Antarctica has reached -129 °F [-89 °C]. There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from one to five thousand people reside throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the continent. Only cold-adapted organisms survive, including many types of algae, bacteria, fungi, plants, and certain animals, such as mites, nematodes, penguins, and seals.
Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis [“Southern Land”] date back to antiquity, the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev on Vostok and Mirny first sighted a continental ice shelf in 1820. The continent, however, remained largely neglected for the rest of the nineteenth century because of its hostile environment, lack of resources, and isolation.
Antarctica is governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System that have consulting status. The Antarctic Treaty was originally signed in 1959 by twelve countries and to date, fifty countries have signed the treaty. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the continent’s Eco zone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than four thousand scientists from many nations.
Antarctica has no indigenous population and there is no evidence that it was seen by humans until the 19th century. However, belief in the existence of a Terra Australis – a vast continent in the far south of the globe to balance the northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa – had existed since the times of Ptolemy [1st century AD], who suggested the idea to preserve the symmetry of all known landmasses in the world. Even in the late 17th century, after explorers had found that South America and Australia were not part of the fabled “Antarctica”, geographers believed that the continent was much larger than its actual size.
Integral to the story of the origin of the name “Antarctica” is how it was not named Terra Australis – this name was given to Australia instead, and it was because of a mistake made by people who decided that a significant landmass would not be found further south of Australia. Explorer Matthew Flinders, in particular, has been credited with popularizing the transfer of the name Terra Australis to Australia.
Antarctica is divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The portion west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is called West Antarctica and the remainder East Antarctica, because they roughly correspond to the Western and Eastern Hemispheres relative to the Greenwich meridian.
The continent has about 90% of the world’s ice and accordingly about 70% of the world’s fresh water. If all of this ice were melted, sea levels would rise about two hundred feet [60 meters] In most of the interior of the continent, precipitation is very low, and in a few “blue ice” areas precipitation is lower than mass loss by sublimation and so the local mass balance is negative. In the dry valleys, the same effect occurs over a rock base, leading to a desiccated landscape.
West Antarctica is covered by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The sheet has been of recent concern because of the real, if small, possibility of its collapse. If the sheet were to break down, ocean levels would rise by several feet in a relatively geologically short period of time, perhaps a matter of centuries. Several Antarctic ice streams, which account for about 10% of the ice sheet, flow to one of the many Antarctic ice shelves.
East Antarctica lies on the Indian Ocean side of the Transantarctic Mountains and comprises Coats Land, Queen Maud Land, Enderby Land, Mac. Robertson Land, Wilkes Land, and Victoria Land. All but a small portion of this region lies within the Eastern Hemisphere. East Antarctica is largely covered by the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica at 16,050 feet [4,892 meters], is located in the Ellsworth Mountains. Antarctica contains many other mountains, on both the main continent and the surrounding islands. Mount Erebus on Ross Island is the world’s southernmost active volcano.
Antarctica is home to more than seventy lakes that lie at the base of the continental ice sheet. Lake Vostok, discovered beneath Russia’s Vostok Station in 1996, is the largest of these subglacial lakes. It was once believed that the lake had been sealed off for a half to one million years but a recent survey suggests that, every so often, there are large flows of water from one lake to another.
It is truly an amazing place. As I said in my eighteen minute vlogcumentary “flying north in antarctica,” “the experience of setting foot on earth’s least visited and most mysterious continent is truly transformative. My advice: do it.”
On to continent number five: Europe.