Antarctica: The Ice-Covered Bottom of the World (Photos)
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Antarctica is a place of extremes. It's the southernmost continent and hosts the coldest temperature ever directly recorded on Earth's surface — a bone-chilling minus 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 89.2 degrees Celsius) logged at Russia's Vostok research station. It's also home to the windiest spot on the planet — Mawson station, where max winds have been clocked whipping at 154 mph (248.4 km/h), according to CoolAntarctica. Here's a look at the awe-inspiring ice cake at the bottom of our planet…
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Cloud streetsLong, parallel bands of cumulus clouds (called cloud streets) stretch over the Amundsen Sea off West Antarctica in this image captured from space on Sept. 12, 2018. The puffy sky streaks likely formed as cool air blowing from Antarctica and the sea ice hit warmer open waters, picking up heat and rising into the atmosphere. There, these so-called thermals would have bumped into a layer of warm air, a lid of sorts, causing "the rising thermals to roll over and loop back on themselves," according to NASA. On the upper side of these "cylinders of rotating air," NASA said, clouds form.
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On the moveDon't be fooled, Antarctica is not a still, ever-silent place. It's constantly on the move, with glaciers inching toward the sea, ice blocks breaking off their land-leashed parent shelves and the resulting icebergs splintering into their own smaller chunks of floating ice. Some icebergs look like carefully cut rectangles, like the ones shown here in this aerial view captured in 1997. They're called tabular icebergs.
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Clean breakOn Oct. 16, 2018, during a research flight above the Antarctic Peninsula, Jeremy Harbeck, from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, snapped a photo showing "an unusually angular iceberg floating amid sea ice just off the Larsen C ice shelf," according to NASA. And it's relatively big, about 3,000 feet (900 meters) wide and 5,000 feet (1,500 m) long. The trapezoidal slab could be the result of an enormous iceberg called A-68A slamming into an immovable ice rise, resulting in the splintering of such neatly cut squares and rectangles, according to NASA.
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Volcanic beautyResting quietly in the Indian Ocean, Amsterdam Island is a small bit of land about 21 square miles (55 square kilometers) in size and considered part of the French Southern and Antarctic Lands. It was formed by a now-extinct volcano that reaches an altitude of nearly 3,000 feet (911 meters); the island formed between 400,000 and 200,000 years ago, according to the World Wildlife Fund.
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Permanent baseThis permanent Antarctic research station, called Comandante Ferraz base, is named after Brazilian Navy Commander Luís Antônio de Carvalho Ferraz. The aerial view was captured March 10, 2014.
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Artists's paletteSome aerial shots of the Antarctic look more impressionist art than real-life phenomena. Here, the sunset paints ice floes around Antarctica in pastel shades of pink and orange.
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Bergy bitsIcebergs rise from the sea surface in this aerial view of Antarctica, captured in 1997. The term iceberg refers to ice chunks that are bigger than 16 feet (5 meters) across, according to the National Snow and Ice Data Center. As for wee icebergs, smaller than the official threshold, scientists apparently call those bergy bits and growlers, NSIDC said.
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Bunger HillsAntarctic landscapes aren't all white and frosty blue. Take Bunger Hills, seen in this aerial view captured in January 2008. This snow- and ice-free terrain was discovered in February 1947 by a pilot who was part of the U.S. Navy's Operation Highjump. At the time, the 390-square-mile (1,000 square kilometers) spot was considered an "oasis," according to a paper by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) published in 1988. Admiral Richard E. Byrd, who led Operation Highjump, described it as "a land of blue and green lakes and brown hills in an otherwise limitless expanse of ice," according to the USGS paper.
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Casey StationCasey Station is one of three permanent stations run by the Australian Antarctic Division. Named in honor of the then Governor-General of Australia Richard Casey, the station was opened on Feb. 19, 1969, as a replacement to the Wilkes station, which was buried by deep snowdrifts, according to the Australian Antarctic Division. The station is located in the Windmill Islands, just outside the Antarctic Circle.
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Glacial textureThe southernmost continent is bathed in sunlight during the Southern Hemisphere summer (while its northern cousin is shrouded in darkness). Here, in an image captured by a NASA satellite on Dec. 13, 2010, along the Princess Ragnhild Coast in East Antarctica, icebergs pop out due to the low-angle sunlight. The rougher-textured icebergs likely split from the coast, bobbing in the open ocean before ending up here, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. Scars from all that jostling roughed up the ice surfaces. The icebergs with smoother surfaces were birthed locally, not having been ravaged by the seas.
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Beautiful placesMarambio Base is a permanent Argentinian research station on the Antarctic Peninsula, which juts out from the continent toward South America and is considered by many visitors to be "one of the most beautiful places on Earth," according to CoolAntarctica, a site run by Paul Ward, who has a zoology degree and has worked in Antarctica.
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Even reds sometimes show up on this mostly white continent. Here, blood-red meltwater spills from Taylor Glacier Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys, located along the southern coast of Antarctica. Blood Falls, as the waterfall-like stream is called, has a not-so-macabre source: Researchers reported April 24, 2017, in the Journal of Glaciology that a stream of brine beneatt the ice feeds the falls. That briny water is chockful of iron, which oxidizes and turns red when exposed to the air. As such, the outflow looks "bloody" as it flows into Lake Bonney, Live Science previously reported. The image was captured on Nov. 11, 2016.
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In addition to its reputation for gorgeous and awe-inspiring scapes, Antarctica is also a poster child for global warming. For instance, since 1995, the Larsen Ice Shelf, on the northeast coast of the Antarctic Peninsula along the Weddell Sea, has lost 75 percent of its mass, Live Science previously reported. And over about a month in 2002, part of the Larsen ice shelf, called Larsen B, collapsed, something that amazed scientists who had never seen so much ice (3,250 square kilometers, or 1,250 square miles) splinter off that quickly, according to NASA's Earth Observatory. Here, the gorgeous Larsen B Ice Shelf is shown on Feb. 21, 2000, about two years before its fateful collapse.
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Antarctica is nearly completely blanketed in thick ice. Here, in this NASA image snapped on Sept. 26, 2001, you can get an idea of the various types of ice found on the continent. For instance, ice of continental glacier is up to 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) thick at the interior (shown at the bottom of the image). The thick glaciers are fastened in place by coastal mountain ranges, blue patches of bare ice are the result of strong "katabatic" winds that scour the snow from its surfaces, according to NASA. The much smoother ice shelf can be seen above the coastline, where the ice floats on the sea surface. "Beyond that is the chaotic surface of the sea ice, which has been solidifying all winter long," NASA said.
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The Operational Land Imager on the Landsat-8 satellite captured this image showing a 560-mile (900 kilometers) stretch along Antarctica's Pacific coast, where 18 major volcanoes — yes, volcanoes, in Antarctica! — pop up from the ice sheet. Mount Sidley, Antarctica's tallest volcano, stands tall: It reaches 13,800 feet (4,200 meters) above sea level and 7,200 feet (2,200 m) above the ice surface. Rear Adm. Richard Byrd discovered Mount Sidley in 1934, later naming it after Mabelle Sidley, the daughter of a member of the Byrd Antarctic Expedition, according to NASA.