15 interesting facts about Antarctica

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.

Antarctica Facts

  • 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.

1000px-Antarctica.svg

  • 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.
640px-Antarctic_krill_(Euphausia_superba)
Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), one of the most abundant species on the planet. Photo credit: Uwe Kils
  • 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 AristotleArktos 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 are 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 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.
640px-Flag_of_the_Antarctic_Treaty.svg
The flag of the Antarctic Treaty
  • The first confirmed sightings of continental Antarctica happened just 200 years ago.  The Imperial Russian expedition led by Fabien Gottleib 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 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 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.
Polheim
Amundsen and his crew at Polheim, the geographical South Pole, 1911. Photo credit: Olav Bjaaland

 

  • 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.

 

gentoo_family_at_jougla_point
Gentoo penguin family at Jougla Point in the Palmer Archipelago.  Photo credit: Liam Quinn.
  • 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 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 it’s 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.
Antarctic_Pack_Ice_(2220345436)
Antarctic ice. Photo credit: Gregory Smith.
  • 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.

What I loved this winter

Where I’ve been

Unlike the last couple of seasons, I’ve not travelled particularly far and wide in the last few months.  Since returning from the Algarve at the beginning of November, I’ve been based in the UK, and making the most of the opportunity to get out and about while I look for work.

haughs_bay_small
Christmas brought clear crisp weather to the Aberdeenshire coast; ideal for long walks and star-filled nights.

Over Christmas and New Year I headed north to Aberdeenshire to spend time with my family.  The crisp, and clear weather was perfect for long walks along the coast, with the odd dip in the icy North Sea, and into the hills of the Angus glens.  And short winter days quickly gave out to long dark nights, filled with stars and the arc of the Milky Way (although unfortunately no glimpse of an aurora), and a driftwood bonfire on the beach.

gannet_skull_2_small
Lazy winter days spent beachcombing, reading good books, and spending time with family.
st_cyrus_sea_heart_small
Love my favourite beach at St Cyrus National Nature Reserve.
new_year_fire_small
Celebrating Hogmanay on the beach with a midnight bonfire.

There was also enough time for a visit to Dundee to explore the new V&A museum, as well as some of my old favourite destinations in the city, like McManus Gallery, Clarke’s bakery and RRS Discovery.

dundee_discovery_1_small
RSS Discovery alongside her new neighbour on the Dundee riverside, the V&A

Back in Bedfordshire, I got out and about in the Chilterns often, especially around Dunstable Downs and Ashridge Estate, for long walks, trail runs, and the pleasure of just spending time in the woods, watching the turn of the seasons.

red_january_2_small
The occasional sunrise run was brilliant for starting my day the best way.

What I’ve done

I set myself a challenge to start the year; undertaking to make time every day to get outside and do some kind of physical activity for Red January, and at the same time to fundraise for Mind, the mental health charity.  I live with depression, and through the winter often find there can be more bad days than good, so try to take steps to manage my condition.  I’m extremely pleased to say I met both of those goals, and discovered a real love for my weekly Parkrun at Rushmere Country Park at the same time.

running_shoes_small
RED laces help you run better: FACT!

In mid-January I headed to Wiltshire, to the Team Rubicon UK HQ, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, on what was possibly the coldest night of the year to pitch a tent.  Team Rubicon are a disaster response organisation, working around the world in communities devastated by natural disasters to aid in the immediate aftermath, and to help build resilience against future events.  In an intense few days I completed my basic induction to TRUK, and the Domestic Operations training course.  I’ve got a blog post coming soon about the experience, and what it might lead to next.

TRUK_vic_small
After an awesomeinduction and domestic ops. training course, I’m now a qualified TRUK Greyshirt.

Unseasonably warm weather in late February (as much as 18C, just a week or so after the snow) made it easier to continue getting outside for runs and walks almost every day, and to try my hand at a new pastime; forest bathing, spending time immersing myself in the sights, sounds and smells of the woodland.  It was the perfect way to remedy to a stressful couple of weeks while I moved into a new flat.

frosty_birch_1_small
Watching the change of the seasons in the woodland.

The first brimstone butterflies, nuthatches tapping on tree trunks, jays, hazel catkins bursting open, showers of hawthorn blossom, and the very first leaves.  On warmer, damp evenings frogs and toads are on the move to the nearby pond, and I’ve been out with the local Toad Patrol group, rescuing amorous amphibians attempting to cross the road.  Spring is well and truly on the way.

 

My winter love list

  • Books: Winter is always the best time to get lost in a good book.  Dark evenings and wild weather teamed with a cosy spot to sit and a wee dram.  Over the last few months I’ve read Erebus by Michael Palin, RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR by Phillip Hoare, and Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge.
palin_erebus_small
Getting stuck into a good book is one of the great pleasures of a Christmas holiday.  Along with a good slug of amaretto in your coffee.
  • Film: The Little Prince, an excellent animation based on the classic children’s book (and standard text for studying French) by Antione de Saint-Exupéry, that explores the idea of wonder, exploration and excitement and how it changes as we grow older. 
  • Clothing: I’m still rocking those toasty warm White Stuff flannel pyjamas at every opportunity, usually teamed with the biggest, softest blanket scarf that my sister got me for Christmas.  Its a combo that’s been especially welcome after REDJanuary runs in the rain and sleet.
  • Equipment: I picked up a new tent in preparation for the TGO Challenge in May.  After researching various  possibilities and budgets, I decided on the one-person Robens Starlight 1, which seemed ideal.  Unfortunately, there was a manufacturing flaw in the tent delivered to me, so after a bit of faffing around trying to get a replacement, I’ve actually ended up with a Wild Country Zephyros 1.  I’m hoping to get out soon to put it through it’s paces.
starlight_tent_1_small
The Robens Starlight 1 one person tent.
  • Health: I’ve started taking vitamin D supplements, which have been suggested to help lift a low mood at this time of year.  We naturally get it from exposing our skin to sunlight, something that can be hard to come by in higher latitudes in winter.
  • Treats: My winter treat has been finding a cosy spot to curl up and read, along with a cheeky glass of amaretto and ice.  I’ve also found a shot in a flask of coffee is lovely on a cold winter day on the coast (a tip from Ebby the kayaker on the Isle of Wight).

 

What’s next:

I’ve got a few things already planned for the spring, starting with my first experience of leading walking tours.  I’ll be exploring trails in the South Downs National Park and surrounding areas, and sharing the experience with a group on a walking holiday.

TGO_route_small
Planning and researching a route for the TGO Challenge has been an enjoyable diversion over the winter months.

Then the TGO Challenge is quickly approaching , with just over two months to train for a self-supported crossing of Scotland from the west coast to the east.  I’m planning on a few nights of camping, testing out different food for the trek, packing  and re-packing my backpack, plus plenty of walking days in preparation.

adventure_mug_small
Cheers to the New Year and the new advdentures it will bring!

Thanks for following along with These Vagabond Shoes.

You can keep up to date with my travel and adventures on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.  Here’s to fair seas and following winds in spring.

I’d love to hear about what you’ve been up to this season, or any plans you have for the season ahead. 
Let me know in the comments below.