A series of interesting facts about Antarctica that I uncovered during my research.
Earth’s southernmost continent held us in its thrall long before it was first sighted in January 1820, still just a blank space on the map. The limitless solitude and silence, the vastness of scale, occupying mythical space in our imagination. Even now, with the possibility to visit the continent as a tourist, we are drawn by the idea of blankness, the purity of a landscape without the cultural associations of our own, where we can make our own connections and add new pins to the map.
I’ve done a large amount of research recently to familiarise myself with Antarctica: the short human history and tales of exploration; ecosystems and wildlife; the rock and the ice; the striking natural beauty of the continent. In the process, I’ve uncovered more than a few interesting facts on which to hang my own understanding and experience, and I’m sharing the best of them here.
- The Antarctic polar circle is an imaginary line circling the earth parallel to the equator at latitude 66°33′ S. South of the line experiences at least one day of midnight sun at the December solstice, where the sun remains above the horizon, and at least one day of polar night at the June solstice, where the sun does not rise over the horizon.
- Most of the landmass of Antarctica lies within the polar circle, with just the tip of the peninsula, Graham Land, and a few capes in Enderby Land and Wilkes Land extending north of the line. However, all land and islands, and ice shelves, lying south of latitude 60°S are considered part of Antarctica, and governed by the Antarctic Treaty System (more on that below).
- The true boundary of the Antarctic could also be considered the Antarctic convergence (AAC) zone, also known as the polar front, an oceanographic feature where the dense, cold waters of the Antarctic circumpolar current sink beneath warmer waters from the north. The resulting upwelling of nutrients supports a rich diversity of marine life. The convergence circles the continent at a latitude between 41°S and 61°S, in a band around 40km (25 miles) wide, and the variation is why island groups such as South Georgia (54°15′S 36°45′W) and Bouvetøya (54°25′S 3°22′E) are considered to be Antarctic in biogeographical terms, and Macquarie Island (54°38′S 158°50′E) and Cape Horn (55°58′S 67°17′W) are sub-Antarctic.
- The name Antarctica was first formally used for the continent by Scottish cartographer John George Bartholemew in his work of 1890, after the term Terra Australis, which had described a speculative southern continent was used for the re-naming of New Holland (het Niew Hollandt) as Australia. Antarctica is derived from the Greek antarktikós, the opposite of the Arctic, the opposite of north, used for unspecified and unknown southern lands since the days of Aristotle. Arktos means bear, and arktikos referencing the northern constellations Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear). The fact that polar bears live in the Arctic and not in the Antarctic is purely coincidental.
- Antarctica is the coldest continent on Earth. On 21st July 1983, a low of -89.2°C (-128.6°F, air temperature) was recorded at Vostock Research Station, on the isolated, inhospitable East Antarctic Plateau. Recent satellite observations have suggested that it may get even colder in certain conditions, as low as -98°C. The Antarctic Peninsula, where most visitors will go, has a much milder climate, with January averages around 1 to 2 °C (34-36°F), though it can get as warm as 10°C (50°F).
- The Antarctic has no indigenous population and no permanent inhabitants. Approximately 29 nations send personnel south of 60° to operate seasonal and year-round research stations, field bases, and research vessels, giving a summer population of around 5,000, dropping to just 1,000 or so over winter. The number of summer residents is boosted by tourists, with more than 44,000 visitors recorded in 2016-17 season.
- The Antarctic Treaty System is a unique set of international agreements, laying out the framework for the governance of the region. Originally signed in 1959, it establishes the peaceful pursuit of scientific research, international co-operation, and environmental protection as the goals for all nations active in Antarctica.
- The first confirmed sightings of continental Antarctica happened just 200 years ago. The Imperial Russian expedition led by Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev, on the ships Vostok and Mirny, discovered an ice shelf on the Princess Martha Coast, on 27th January 1820, which later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf. Just a few days later, on 30th January, Edward Bransfield, of the British Royal Navy, sighted the Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost tip of the Antarctic continental mainland.
- An expedition led by Norwegian polar legend Roald Amundsen was first to reach the geographic South Pole on 14th December 1911. Leaving the ship Fram, on loan from his fellow countryman Fridtjof Nansen, in the Bay of Whales at Framheim, he traversed the Axel Heiberg Glacier onto the polar plateau, using skis and sled dogs, reaching the pole in 56 days. On realising their goal, the Norwegian team spent three days taking sextant readings, and “boxing the pole” to establish an exact position. Despite setting out from their base at Cape Evans on Ross Island just five days later the Norwegians, it wasn’t until five weeks after Amundsen arrival that Robert Falcon Scott’s ill-fated team reached the pole.
- Unlike in the Arctic, there are no large terrestrial animals in Antarctica. In fact, the largest creature living on the land is a flightless midge, Belgica antarctica, just 6mm (0.25in) in length. It’s reckoned that it’s flightlessness is an adaptation to prevent being swept away in the strong winds that blast the continent.
- The richest and most diverse ecosystem in Antarctica is the ocean. Nutrient-rich water upwelling in the Antarctic convergence cultivates blooms of plankton, which feeds super-abundances of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans. In turn, the krill support many species of fish, seals, birds, and whales, including orcas, humpback whales, and blue whales, the largest of all.
- Though we immediately think of penguins as the classic Antarctic bird, only a few species actually live that far south. Of the 18 extant species worldwide, four can be considered Antarctic (Emperors, Adélies, Gentoos, and Chinstraps) and another four are sub-Antarctic (Kings, Royals, Southern Rockhoppers, and Macaronis). If, like me, you can’t get enough of penguins, check out the BAS Penguin of the Day photos.
- The famed Northern Lights, the aurora borealis, have a southern counterpart, the aurora australis. The aurora is the result of disturbances in the upper atmosphere, when streams of charged particles ejected from the sun interact with the earth’s magnetic field. The ideal time to observe the aurora australis in Antarctica is in the dark nights through the southern winter, however, they can also be seen from the Peninsula and South Georgia.
- The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest single mass of ice on earth, covering around 98% of the continent, an area equivalent to one and a half times the size of continental USA. It’s estimated that it reaches as much as 4,700m (15, 420′ or 2.9 miles) thick at the greatest extent, and extends almost 2,500m (8200′ or 1.5 miles) below sea level in West Antarctica. The extent of sea ice formed through the winter months almost doubles the size of the continent. Unlike the Arctic, the area has remained fairly constant in recent decades, though the variation in ice thickness is unclear.
- All is not well in Antarctica. The rate of ice melt has doubled every decade since records were first kept, a direct consequence of increased air and water temperatures in the region. The rate of air temperature rise (2°C or 3.2°F in the past 50 years) is one of the highest on the planet, resulting in a rise in sea levels and glacial ice calving faster than at any time since the records began. Further increases in temperature will have profound effects on global weather patterns.