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.

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  • 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.
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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.
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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.
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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.

 

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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.
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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.

Armchair Travel: 10 Books about the Ocean

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I’m incredibly fortunate to have spent almost all of the spring and summer of 2019 working as a deckhand and wildlife guide on board Irene of Bridgewater, a traditional gaff ketch with over a hundred years of history, exploring the stunning coastline and islands around the British and Irish Isles, with occasional trips to the other side of the channel too.

I know I’ve already presented you with a selection of sailing adventures in this Armchair Travel series, but I just can’t stay out of the ocean.  So here are some of the books that have excited and inspired me about the sea.

  • Seven Tenths: the Sea and its Thresholds – James Hamilton Paterson

A series of essays making a luminescent meditation on the meaning of the sea.  Stories of swimming, shipwrecks, salvage, memorials, and unsustainable development form the bones for ideas of anthropology, science, history, and philosophy unveiled in beautiful literary prose.

  • The Whale Rider – Witi Ihimaera

Past and present, myth and reality, wild nature and human lives flow together in this beautiful but challenging retelling of a Maori legend.  Two narratives weave together: Kahu, a young girl seeking recognition from her grandfather, an elder of the tribe; and the poetic migration of the whales reliving the legend of Kahutia Te Rangi, the whalerider. Thoughts on race and prejudice, and the balance between preserving tradition and moving with the times in indigenous cultures makes this much more than an average young adult read.

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The seashell I hatched out of. FACT
  • Under the Sea Wind – Rachel Carson

Most of us will know of Rachel Carson from her seminal work Silent Spring, documenting the environmental crisis arising from the indiscriminate use of pesticides.  But her first and most enduring passion was marine ecology, brought vividly to life in this work by creating a personal connection to individual creatures inhabiting different niches in the marine and coastal environment.  This is a beautiful book to share with young people.

The island lay in shadows only a little deeper than those that were swiftly stealing across the sound from the east. On its western shore the wet sand of the narrow beach caught the same reflection of palely gleaming sky that laid a bright path across the water from island beach to horizon. Both water and sand were the color of steel overlaid with the sheen of silver, so that it was hard to say where water ended and land began.

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  • The Kon Tiki Expedition – Thor Heyerdahl

This is the account of Thor Heyerdahl and his companions sailing a balsa raft more than 4000 miles across the Pacific from Callao in Peru to the remote Tuamoto archipelago.  I don’t know if it’s possible to convey just how influential its been in my life.  I first read it when I was around 10 years old, and fell in love with the idea of living a life filled with adventures; with learning about sailing and navigation throughout history and human migration and movement; with studying marine ecology and oceanography.  I even have a copy in the original Norwegian which has helped me with learning the language.

  • The Highest Tide – Jim Lynch

A summertime coming-of-age novel where the protagonist, nature obsessed 14 year old Miles O’Malley, discovers a giant squid washed up in Skookumchuk Bay, and accidentally becomes a prophet for a local cult.  A beautifully written book that captures both the mystery of the ocean and the uncertainty of adolescence perfectly.

  • RISINGTIDEFALLINGSTAR – Philip Hoare

Another swirling and surging work examining how the sea shapes our lives and our sense of otherness.  Personal experiences and travels lead to thoughts on swimming, poetry and literature, and philosophy connecting notable characters from Byron to Bowie, Melville to Woolf.  I read this while landlocked through the winter, in between signing off from one ship on the Algarve and joining another in Devon, and it kept the salt air in my hair and sand between my toes.

  • The Silent World – Jacques-Yves Cousteau

A classic book by a pioneer of underwater exploration.  This is Cousteau’s autobiographical account of the experiments and trials leading to the development of SCUBA equipment, or aqualung, along with Phillipe Tailliez and Frédéric Dumas, and their transformation into “menfish”.  It’s the reason why my internal voice while I’m diving has a French* accent.

*goood moaning.  I didn’t say it was a good one.

  • The Sea Around Us – Rachel Carson

There cannot be too many books by Carson on your TBR list, but I’ll hold myself back by only recommending these two.  In this she tells the story of the oceans, from their geological origins and the beginnings of life, through early exploration and discovery, increasing scientific understanding of processes and systems, to the impact human activity is having.  The dawning of the Anthropocene.  It’s hard to grasp that this book was written in 1951, nearly 70 years ago, given the prescience of the writing, and is just a fresh and relevant today.

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Hanging out with bowriding dolphins.
  • Sightlines – Kathleen Jamie

A collection of travel and nature essays crafted on journeys around the coast of the British and Irish Isles and Scandinavia, though that word doesn’t quite feel right for describing the pieces of poetic reflection and personal remembrance that shine like wet pebbles picked from the shore.  A masterclass in the art of observation.

Keep looking. Keep looking, even when there’s nothing much to see. That way your eye learns what’s common, so when the uncommon appears, your eye will tell you.

Kathleen Jamie

  • The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s are One – Sylvia Earle

A familiar figure to many from her TED talks, National Geographic articles, and Mission Blue movement, Earle has a depth and breadth of knowledge equal to her subject matter.  The writing is straightforward and accessible, and her passion shines through in every page as she details all that ails the oceans.  But what is most shining about this book is that despite the overwhelming negativity of the content (overfishing; resource extraction; pollution; biodiversity loss and species extinctions; habitat degradation and destruction; plastic contamination; and how the health of the ocean is vital to our own), the message is that there is still time to take action.

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Which of these books have you enjoyed? Do you have any Ocean themed recommendations for me?
I’d love to hear from you; let me know what you think in the comments.