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Antarctica: Facts About the Coldest Continent

The coldest, windiest, and driest continent, Antarctica contains 90 percent of all of the ice on the planet in an area just under one and a half times the size of the United States. Let's take a look at one of the world's most desolate regions.

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Penguins dash across an ice floe near Antarctica.
Credit: © NZ IPY-CAML.

Antarctic climate

Lying in the Antarctic Circle that rings the southern part of the globe, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent. Its size varies through the seasons, as expanding sea ice along the coast nearly doubles its size in the winter. Most of Antarctica is covered with ice; less than half a percent of the vast wilderness is ice free.

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The West Antarctic Ice Sheet sits below sea level today, but 34 million years ago, it sat on a much higher mountain range.
Credit: NASA.

The continent is divided into two regions, known as East and West Antarctica. East Antarctica makes up two thirds of the continent, and is about the size of Australia. Ice in this part of the continent averages 1.2 miles (2 kilometers) thick. West Antarctica, on the other hand, is a series of frozen islands stretching toward the southern tip of South America, an extension of the Andes Mountains prominent on the warmer continent. The two regions are separated by the Transantarctic Mountains, a range that stretches across the entire continent, although sometimes covered by ice.

The ice of Antarctica is not a smooth sheet but a continuously changing expanse. Glaciers inch across the continent, cracking and breaking the ice. Crevasse fields with cracks hundreds of feet deep span the continent, hidden by only a shallow layer of snow. Icebergs fall along the coast, where shelves and glaciers break off into the sea. [PHOTOS: Antarctica, Iceberg Maker]

Despite its thick ice, Antarctica is classified as a desert because so little moisture falls from the sky. The inner regions of the continent receive an average of 2 inches (50 millimeters) of precipitation—primarily in the form of snow—each year. More rain falls in the Sahara desert. The coastal regions receive more falling moisture, but still only average 8 inches (200 mm) annually. Unlike most desert regions, however, the moisture doesn't soak into the ground. Instead, the snow piles on top of itself.

Although little liquid falls from the sky, Antarctica still boasts colossal blizzards. Like sandstorms in the desert, the wind picks snow up from the ground and blows vast white blankets. Winds can reach up to 200 miles per hour (320 kilometers per hour).

Because it lies in the southern hemisphere, seasons in Antarctica are the opposite of seasons in the north. Summer runs from October to February and winter covers the remainder of the year. But don't pack your swim suit and sunglasses—Antarctic summers average just above freezing, with the more mountainous East Antarctica colder than its western counterpart. The lowest temperature in the world, -89.6 degrees Celsius (-129.3 degrees Fahrenheit), was recorded at the Russian Vostok station in Antarctica.

Antarctica has no trees or bushes. Vegetation on the continent is composed of mosses, lichen, and algae. Penguins, whales, and seals live in and around Antarctica, as do fish and krill. The male Emperor penguin is the only warm-blooded animal to remain on the continent through the freezing winter while nesting on the single egg laid by its mate (the female spends nine weeks at sea and returns in time for the egg to hatch).

There are no indigenous populations of people on the frozen continent. Today, human habitation exists at a variety of science research stations placed by a number of countries. The freezing weather is an excellent location to study how the body and mind adapts to the cold. Scientists also drill for ice cores, which can provide a climate history of the region over thousands of years. The vast vegetation-free expanse makes an excellent place to search for meteorites; the dark rocks stand out easily on the white backdrop and don't find themselves covered by growing plants. Other projects include the study of penguins, fish, global warming, glaciology, astronomy, and climatology.

Exploring Antarctica

The frozen southern region was the last continent discovered. It wasn't spotted until 1820. American sealer John Davis was the first to state he landed on Antarctica in 1821, although some historians dispute his claim.

At the beginning of the 20th century, two groups of explorers set out across the desolate Antarctic landscape in a race to walk where no man had walked before. The first team to reach the South Pole was led by Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Amundsen spent 99 days racing Robert Scott, an English naval officer, to the South Pole.

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Happier times: British explorer Robert Falcon Scott stands alone in Antarctica's glittering white wilderness. The photo was included in a remarkable book, "The Lost Photographs of Captain Scott" (Little, Brown and Co., 2011), written by David M. Wilson, the great-nephew of Scott's confidante Edward Wilson.
Credit: © 2011 Richard Kossow.

Amundsen, a veteran polar traveler, led a team of 18 men across the frozen continent , finally reaching the pole on Dec. 14, 1912. Scott and his crew made it to the pole four weeks later on Jan. 17, 1913, but did not make it back alive. A search party found Scott and his two remaining companions inside their sleeping bags in a small tent out on the ice, just 11 miles (17 kilometers) from the nearest cache of food and supplies. The searchers covered the tent with snow and left the dead men where they lay.

Facts about Antarctica:

Catherine Mikkelson, the wife of a Norwegian whaling captain, became the first woman to visit Antarctica in 1935.

As part of its effort to claim a portion of Antarctica, Argentina sent a pregnant woman to the continent. In January 1979, Emile Marco Palma became the first child born in on the southernmost continent.

The area of Antarctica is approximately 5.4 million square miles (14 million square kilometers). The United States is 3.6 million square miles (9.36 million square kilometers).

There are no huskies pulling sleds in Antarctica. As of 1994, no non-native species are allowed to be taken to Antarctica. Motor-powered vehicles are the primary method of transportation across the ice.

At least two active volcanoes exist in Antarctica. The highest, Mount Erebus (12,448 feet; 3,794 meters) boasts a permanent lake. The other lies on Deception Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula. Although eruptions in 1967 and 1969 damaged science stations there, the island remains a popular stop-off for tourists, who can bathe in the water warmed by the volcano while surrounded by ice.

If you throw boiling water into the air in Antarctica, it will instantly vaporize. Most of the particles will turn into steam while others are instantly converted to small pieces of ice.

Millions of years ago, Antarctica had a much warmer climate and boasted evergreen forests and a variety of animals. Fossils of this earlier period provide scientists with clues about life before Antarctica became a vast icy shelf.

Melting Antarctica's ice sheets would raise oceans around the world by 200 to 210 feet (60 to 65 meters).

In 2000, the largest recorded icebergs broke free from the Ross Ice Shelf, a region the size of Texas. With a surface area of 4,250 square miles (11,000 square kilometers) above water and ten times the size beneath, the iceberg was approximately as large as the state of Connecticut.

Finding microbial life in some of the most desolate regions of Antarctica has given scientists hope of finding life on other relatively inhospitable planets.

Lake Vostok, a lake hidden deep beneath the Antarctic surface, may house life. Expeditions from several countries are currently drilling the 13,100 feet (4,000 meters) to reach this hidden gem.

—    Nola Taylor Redd

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