Antarctica Main Facts

Earth’s southernmost continent, it contains the geographic South Pole and is situated in the Antarctic Region of the Southern Hemisphere. Almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle and surrounded by the Southern Ocean.

The name “Antarctica” comes from a Greek compound word meaning “opposite to the Artic” or “opposite to the north”.

Antarctica not only includes the emerged pieces of land but also the marine regions limited by the Antarctic Polar Front or Antarctic Convergence (an irregular line that joins the points where the cold waters of the Antarctica circumpolar current meet the warmer waters of the North). It is not a “fixed” limit, it changes with the seasons and forms a significant biological boundary.

Antarctica map
Geographical Regions

Antarctica covers a surface of around 14.000.000 km2 of which less than 1% are free of ice. Considered the coldest, driest and windiest region of the planet and with the more average height: more than 2000mts over sea level. There are a number of mountains with summits above 4000-meter marks.

Geologists have discovered that beneath the ice Antarctica is not a continuous continent, there are three ice sheets:

  • Eastern Antarctica
  • Western Antarctica
  • The Antarctic Peninsula

The Transantarctic Mountains are sort of a dividing line across the continent separating Eastern Antarctica from Western Antarctica.

Eastern Antarctica or Greater Antarctica

A single landmass about the size of Australia. It lies almost entirely within the Eastern Hemisphere. The ice sheet that covers this area is nearly 5 km (3 miles) thick making it more stable than Western Antarctica

It is permanently covered by ice and the only plant life are lichens, mosses and algae clinging to rocks. Some invertebrates can be found and the coastline is used by seabirds and seals as breeding grounds.

In the centre of East Antarctica lies the Gamurtsev Subglacial Mountain Range about the same size as the European Alps.

The Geology of Eastern Antarctica is composed of ancient igneous and metamorphic rocks.

West Antarctica or Lesser Antarctica

It lies between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. It stretches from the South Pole to the tip of South America.

The coasts of West Antarctica are the only ones free of ice in summer and scientists are studying why West Antarctica is warming faster than East Antarctica.

The highest and lowest points in Antarctica are found on this ice sheet

Vinson Massef or Mount Vinson              4892 meters

the Bentley Subglacial Trench               – 2540 meters

West Antarctica’s origin has much to do with the geology of the Andes and its mountain building process.

Antarctica Peninsula

Curved extension of land that extends about 400 km (250 miles) north of the Antarctic circle and points towards the southern tip of South America.

Argentina, Chile and the United Kingdom have historically claimed the Antarctica Peninsula as national territory. All claims are suspended by the Antarctic Treaty System.

As the Peninsula has the best climate it is home to a number of Research Stations. Argentina has the most bases and personnel stationed on the peninsula.

South Orkney Islands

A group of 4 major islands being Coronation the largest and most popular. With a total area of 620 km2 (240 square miles). These islands are claimed both by the United Kingdom and by Argentina, but all claims have been set aside due to the Antarctic Treaty. In the past they were frequent hunting areas for seals and whales.

They are part of the “Tundra Ecoregion” with mosses, lichens and algae.
Two penguin species can be seen on land Chinstrap Penguins (Pygoscelis antarctica) and Adelie (Pygoscelis adeliae) As also marine birds like storm petrels (Hydrobates pelagicus), Snow petrels (Pagodroma nivea). Seals are often seen feeding in the area.

Falkland Islands/ Islas Malvinas

These islands do not have indigenous population because all the first explorers and settlers were mainly European.

The ONU describes it as a self-governing overseas territory of the UK but claimed historically by Argentina.

About 500 km northeast of the tip of South America, the archipelago is formed by two main islands and about 200 smaller ones.

  • East Falkland/Isla Soledad 6353 km2 It has the most important human settlement with around 2000 inhabitants, the majority of them in the capital Port Stanley/Puerto Argentino. The main activities on the island are sheep raising, fishing, tourism and government.
  • West Falkland/Isla Gran Malvina Separated from the East Island by the Falkland Sound. 4532 km2 with around only 200 people settled along its coast.
    The main activity on the island is sheep raising.

South Shetland Islands

Included in the Antarctic Treaty, these islands have been claimed by the UK, Chile and Argentina.

11 major islands and several smaller ones total 3687 km2. Located north of the Antarctica Peninsula.

Several countries have Research stations on the island, 16 bases in total where Chile has the most.

South Georgia and South Sandwich Islands

A British Overseas Territory in the Southern Atlantic Ocean.
South Georgia is the largest island in the territory, 1300km east southeast of the Falklands/Malvinas. Part of the territory claimed by Argentina but under the rule of the UK.

There is no permanent human settlement on South Georgia only a research station and the only way to get there is by boat.

Mount Paget is the highest point with 2934 meters.
Ernest Shackleton is buried at Grytviken.

Both South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands are part of the world´s largest Marine Protected Area with 1.07 million square km and are considered Important Bird Areas (IBA) by Birdlife International.

South Georgia is an important breeding area for seabirds
78 known bird species including Antarctic prions, albatrosses, shags, skuas, gulls and terns.

Nearly 50% of the fur seal and southern elephant seal populations breed on South Georgia Island.

A great number of native vascular plants, grasses, moss and ferns can be found as part of the Tundra ecoregion.

South Sandwich Islands

337 km2 Formed by 11 volcanic islands that form the Scotia Arc. Located 500 to 800 km south east of South Georgia. These islands are subject to active volcanism. The highest point of the island is Mount Belinda with1370m and Mount Michael on Saunders Island has a persistent lava lake discovered in 1990 and now included in a list of 7 lava lakes in the planet.

These islands remain uninhabited.

Brief history of Exploration
  • 1820 its ice shelf was sighted by  Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen a captain of the Imperial Russian Navy Edward Bransfield a captain in the Royal Navy Nathaniel Palmer a sealer from Connecticut
  • 1821 the first documented landing was registered by John Davies an American sealer.
  • 1839 – 1943 James Clark Ross (Great Britain).He did great geographic discoveries like the Ross Sea, Victoria Land, the Ross Ice Shelf with Mt Erebus and Mt Terror and was the first to recognize Antarctica as a Continent.He also explored the eastern side now known as Ross Island discovering Snow Hill Island and Seymour Island (Marambio)
  • 1909 – 1911 Roald Amundsen (Norway). His first intention was to be the first man to reach the North Pole but after hearing that Americans had achieved it in 1909, he headed to the South Pole. January 1911, he reached the Ross Ice Shelf where he set up his campsite.Robert Scott had the same intention of being the first to reach the South Pole, his campsite was 96 km further south.They both set off in October 1911 but Amundsen was more adapted than the British explorer, being an experienced skier and his experience in handling sled dogs allowed him to reach the South Pole on December 14. He collected data and arrived back to his base in January 1912.
  • Robert Falcon Scott (Royal Navy). He made 2 attempts to reach the South Pole.1901 – 1904 accompanied by Ernest Shackleton they failed to reach the South Pole.1910 – 1912 in his second intent, a failure from the start, using Siberian ponies Scott and his team eventually reached the South Pole a month after Amundsen’s arrival.Disappointed and exhausted they headed back to their main campsite but all perished on the way.
  • 1910 – 1912 Nobu Shirase, (Japan)Not many people know that there was a third contender of the race to reach the South Pole. Nobu only managed to cover 250 km and headed back to his ship but he was the first non-Europeans to explore Antarctica.
  • Sir Ernest Shackleton, (Great Britain)
    1907 – 1909 was his first mission with Robert F Scott but he had to abandon the expedition due to health issues.1914 – 1917 he returned to attempt the first land crossing of the Antarctica continent, leading what was called the Imperial Trans-Antarctic expedition. His ship the Endurance got trapped in the ice and was eventually sunk by an iceberg but he managed to keep his crew alive and all of them survived a 2-year ordeal. For this Shackleton was considered a hero.In 1921 he organized a third expedition to Antarctica when he died of a heart attack on his boat, docked in the South Georgia Islands in 1922.That was considered the end of the Heroic Age of Antarctica Explorations but of course many others continued and are still exploring the frozen continent.Las but not least and even though he never explored Antarctica one must mention Sir Francis Drake who in 1578 discovered the stretch called Drake Passage. Even though in 1525 Francisco de Hoces (Spain) had sailed through the passage and that is why many Spanish speaking countries call it “Mar de Hoces”. In 1616 Jacob Le Maire (Dutch) did the first recorded voyage through the passage.
Biodiversity

Plants

  • 250 lichens
  • 100 mosses
  • 25-30 liverworts
  • 700 terrestrial and aquatic algae species
  • An unknown number of fungi (microscopic)
  • 2 flowering plants (Antarctic Pearlwort & Antarctic hair grass)

The terrestrial plant life is limited to snow free areas or exposed nunataks or mountain peaks

Animals

  • Penguins: 4 species live in Antarctica and another 4 on sub-Antarctic islands
  • Adelie penguins
  • Chinstrap penguins
  • Emperor penguins
  • Gentoo penguins
  • King penguins
  • Macaroni penguins
  • Southern rockhopper penguins
  • Northern rockhopper penguins
  • Seals & sea lions: 6 different species
  • Crabeater seals
  • Elephant seals
  • Fur seals
  • Leopard seals
  • Ross seals
  • Weddell seals
  • Sea lions
  • Whales: 4 species of toothed whales and 6 species of baleen whales
  • Sperm whales
  • Southern bottlenose whale
  • Southern fourtooth whale
  • Orca
  • Blue whale
  • Fin whale
  • Southern right whale
  • Sei whale
  • Minke whale
  • Humpback whale
  • Flying birds: there are
  • Albatrosses
  • Skuas
  • Petrels
  • Gulls
  • Terns
  • Egrets
  • Ducks
  • Geese
  • Swans
  • Land invertebrates

A great number of terrestrial species are commonly found in Antarctica

  • Nematode worms
  • Water bears (tardigrades)
  • Wheel-animals (rotifers)
  • Mites and springtails
  • Beetles
  • Flies

Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (The Madrid Protocol)

Antarctica is a Natural Reserve devoted to peace and Science

Environmental issues must be included in all planning and activities that take place.

All mining and fossil extraction is prohibited

All activities go through an Environmental Impact Assessment

There must be a Waste disposal and Waste Management.

Area Protection and Management of some particular areas.

  • Antarctic Specially Protected Areas
  • Antarctic Specially Managed Areas
  • Historic Sites and Monuments.
Climate

Climate in Antarctica

Considered as one of the coldest places on Earth with 90% of it covered year-round with an ice-sheet of 1.6 km thick. Classified as an ice-cap climate with very cold and extremely dry weather.

It can be literally called a dessert due to the lack of rain. In areas of the coast 200mm can be registered annually but less than 50 mm inland and always in the form of snow.

In average it is the coldest continent with temperatures ranging -57°C/ -70°F inland and warmer temperatures along the coast -3°C/ 26.6° F.
It is a very windy continent with gusts of up to 320 km/h that cause incredible blizzards.

Since 1957 Scientific stations have registered an increase in temperature of more than 0.05° C per decade producing ice loss and a rise in the sea level.

South Atlantic Islands or Islands within the Antarctic Convergence

The oceans surrounding the islands regulate the climate. They have a characteristic Maritime.

Rainy season from December to May with an average rainfall of 550mm.

Average temperatures in Summer 14,1 °C ~ 5.4 °C

Winter 5.1 ° C ~ -1.2 ° C

The coldest temperatures are registered from July to September and trhe prevailing winds are from the northwest.

Tours for Antarctica coming soon!

These tours give you a starting point for what your trip to Argentina could entail. They cover routes we’ve found work particularly well and feature some of our favourite places to stay. Treat them as inspiration, as each trip is created uniquely for you.

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