50 Amazing Facts About Antarctica
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The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was minus 128.56 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius), registered on July 21, 1983, at Antarctica's Vostok station.
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The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the driest place on Earth, with low humidity and almost no snow or ice cover.
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A lot of wind
On average, Antarctica is the windiest continent. Winds in some places of the continent can reach 200 mph (320 km/h).
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A big place
Antarctica is the fifth largest continent.
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Lots of ice
The Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest single mass of ice on Earth.
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An icy land
Ninety-nine percent of Antarctica is covered by ice.
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Storage of a precious resource
Antarctica is home to about 70 percent of the planet's fresh water, and 90 percent of the planet's freshwater ice.
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If the West Antarctic Ice Sheet melted entirely, it would raise global average sea levels by 16 feet (5 meters), according to some estimates.
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Now THAT's ice
The average thickness of Antarctic ice is about 1 mile (1.6 kilometers).
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Bigger than the U.S.
Including its islands and attached floating plains of ice, Antarctica has an area of about 5.4 million square miles (14 million square kilometers), about one-and-a-half times the size of the United States.
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The Ross Ice Shelf
The largest of Antarctica's ice shelves (floating tongues of ice) is the Ross Ice Shelf, which measures some 197,000 square miles (510,680 square kilometers), or 3.7 percent of the total area of Antarctica.
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Antarctica's Gamburtsev Mountains are a range of steep peaks that rise to 9,000 feet (3,000 meters) and stretch 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) across the interior of the continent — and are completely buried under up to 15,750 feet (4,800 m) ice.
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Hidden under ice
Also hiding under the Antarctic ice is an entire lake: Lake Vostok is a pristine freshwater lake buried beneath 2.5 miles (3.7 kilometers) of solid ice. It is about the size of Lake Ontario, and is the largest of the more than 200 liquid lakes strewn around the continent under the ice.
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Move over Grand Canyon
A rift that could rival the Grand Canyon was discovered beneath the Antarctic ice during an expedition conducted during 2009-2010. It is roughly 6 miles (10 kilometers) across and at least 62 miles (100 km) long, possibly far longer if it extends into the sea. It extends nearly a mile down (1.5 km) at its deepest.
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A great divide
The Transantarctic Mountains divide the continent into East and West sections. At 2,175 miles (3,500 kilometers) long, the Transantarctic range is one of the longest mountain ranges on Earth.
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Way up there
The highest point on Antarctica is the Vinson Massif at 16,362 feet (4,987 meters).
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An active volcano
Antarctica is home to Mount Erebus, the southernmost active volcano on the planet and home to Earth's only long-lived lava lakes.
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The existence of Antarctica was completely unknown until the continent was first spotted in 1820. (It wasn't until 20 years later that it was confirmed to be a continent and not just a group of islands.)
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Exploring a new land
Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first human to reach the South Pole. He beat out English explorer Robert Falcon Scott by arriving on Dec. 14, 1911, and planting the Norwegian flag.
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A promise for peace and research
The Antarctic Treaty was signed on Dec. 1, 1959, after more than a year of secret negotiations by 12 countries. It dedicates the continent to peaceful research activities. Forty-eight nations have now signed the treaty.
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Nearly 30 countries operate more than 80 research stations around the continent, according to 2009 numbers from the Council of Managers of National Antarctic Programs.
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Ebb and flow
There is a year-round presence of researchers on Antarctica, peaking at more than 4,000 in the prime summer research season and falling to around 1,000 in the winter season.
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There are no indigenous populations of people on Antarctica.
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In January 1979, Emile Marco Palma became the first child born on the southernmost continent. Argentina sent Palma's pregnant mother to Antarctica in an effort to claim a portion of the continent.
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British explorer and meteorologist Felicity Aston was the first person ever to ski across Antarctica powered only by human muscle. She traveled 1,084 miles (1,744 kilometers) in 59 days between late 2011 and early 2012.
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A tourist site
In 2011, nearly 20,000 tourists visited the Antarctic Peninsula, according to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators.
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The dark night
Like the Arctic to the north, most of Antarctica is completely dark during the region's winter months. Because of the Earth's tilt, during the austral winter, the sun disappears below the horizon for the duration of winter, from the autumnal to the vernal equinox.
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Haven of sunlight
During the summer months, when the sun is constantly above the horizon, more sunlight reaches the surface at the South Pole than over a similar period of time at the equator, according to the CIA World Factbook.
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A unique location
Antarctica lies almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle, which is at about 66 degrees south latitude.
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An unexpected resident
The most abundant land animal on Antarctica is not the penguin, but the tiny nematode worm.
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The expected resident
Penguins are the most common bird in Antarctica and live in colonies with populations that would rival some cities, according to the British Antarctic Survey.
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The male Emperor penguin is the only warm-blooded animal that remains on the Antarctic continent through the winter. It stays to nest on the single egg laid by its mate (the female spends nine weeks at sea and returns in time for the egg to hatch).
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Lack of diversity
The soils of most of the extreme-cold deserts of Antarctica are the least diverse habitats on Earth in terms of fauna, according to the British Antarctic Survey.
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A barren land
There are no trees or shrubs on Antarctica, and only two species of flowering plants (found on some of Antarctica's surrounding islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula).
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As of 1994, no non-native species are allowed to be taken to Antarctica.
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The Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out into warmer waters north of Antarctica, has warmed 2.5 degrees Celsius (4.5 degrees Fahrenheit) since 1950, according to the U.S. National Snow and Ice Data Center. That's about five times the rate of warming measured for the rest of the world, according to NASA.
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Eighty-seven percent of the Antarctic Peninsula's glaciers are in retreat, according to the website of the United States' Palmer Station.
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A big break
In March 2000, the largest iceberg ever measured broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf. The iceberg, dubbed B-15, was 170 miles (270 kilometers) long and 25 miles (40 km) wide — nearly the size of Connecticut.
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The flow of West Antarctica's Pine Island Glacier has been speeding up over the last few decades, and it contributes 25 percent of Antarctica's ice loss.
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Huge sand dunes
Antarctica's largest sand dune is 230 feet (70 meters) high and more than 650 feet (200 m) wide, and is located in the McMurdo Dry Valleys.
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Windy, windy windy
So-called katabatic winds blow off Antarctica's high interior toward the ocean and can reach speeds that qualify as hurricane-strength — up to 200 mph (320 km/h).
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A well-known current
The world's largest wind-driven current, the Circumpolar Current, circles clockwise around Antarctica, from west to east, and is instrumental in moving heat, salt, nutrients and marine life among the world's main ocean basins.
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The South Pole
Antarctica is, of course, home to the geographic South Pole, the spot where the Earth's (imaginary) rotation axis would intersect the surface — at least, it is usually. There is some wobble in Earth's orbit, so the location is not always a precise one.
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The air in Antarctica is so cold that water vapor can condense out of the air and form tiny ice crystals that then fall to the ground. On a sunny day, the sun's rays glint off the crystals, creating a phenomenon called diamond dust, according to the British Antarctic Survey.
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Giant, hollow towers of ice form on Mount Erebus when fumarole cracks on the volcano that vent hot gas spew steam into the open air. The steam freezes in place in the frigid air, forming towers up to 30 feet (10 meters) tall.
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Salty salty water
Deep Lake in Antarctica is so salty that it stays liquid at temperatures down to minus 4 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 20 degrees Celsius).
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A hole in the ozone
Scientists with the British Antarctic Survey first noticed a significant depletion of the ozone in the layer of the atmosphere called the lower stratosphere above Antarctic in the 1970s.
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Areas along Antarctica's coasts are among the cloudiest places in the world, according to the British Antarctic Survey. This "hole" in the ozone layer grows and shrinks with the seasons and is largely caused by chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons, once widely used in air conditioners, aerosol sprays and refrigerators.
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Antarctica is considered the premier hunting ground for meteorites on Earth, in part because the dark rocks stand out against the white ice, but also because the meteorites are largely undisturbed by natural processes.
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A record set
While the coldest temperature ever measured by thermometer on Earth's surface was made at Vostok Station (see slide 1), the coldest ever recorded was minus 136 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 93.2 Celsius), measured in pockets scattered near a high ice ridge between Dome Argus and Dome Fuji, two summits on the East Antarctic Plateau. The satellite measurement, made on Aug. 10, 2010, was announced in December 2013, and, if confirmed on the ground, could beat out the Vostok record. The World Meteorological Organization only recognizes temperature measurements made a few meters above the ground as eligible for records.