How cold does it get in Antarctica? Very cold. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth, after all.

That said, there’s a bit more climatic variation in the Antarctic that you might imagine, and sightseers cruising the gloriously beautiful, wildlife-rich coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula during the long, sun-splashed days of the austral summer are often surprised at just how balmy the weather can be.

We’ve got a detailed article on Antarctica’s climate and weather that we encourage you to read as a companion piece to this. Here, we’ll mainly be talking about the Antarctic deep freeze: just how cold it can get, and why.

Antarctica, the majority of which is classified as an ice cap climate, is the coldest continent, and the competition isn’t even close. The most ferocious cold abides on the Antarctic Polar Plateau of the interior, where temperatures average around -20 °Celsius (-4 °Fahrenheit) in summer and plunge below -60 °C (-76 °F) in winter. (We’ll get into what extreme lows on the Polar Plateau look like shortly.)

Why is Antarctica so cold? Well, there are a lot of contributing factors, actually. The stage for the White Continent’s frigidity is set by its geographic position, way down in the very high latitudes on and around the southern pole. This extreme location means that sunlight hits the planet’s surface at a lower angle, and consequently incoming solar energy is more spread out and thereby “watered down.” And for long periods of time during the austral winter, the Sun doesn’t even rise above the horizon; the South Pole itself, southernmost point on Earth, is dark for half the year.

Mainly as a consequence of its latitude, Antarctica is also absolutely dominated by ice, which covers more than 98 percent of the continent. Caused by the cold climate, that ice-sheet blanket also reinforces it. For one thing, the ice sheet’s snow-covered surface very effectively reflects sunlight, reducing how much solar radiation can be absorbed by the land.

Also, the Antarctic Ice Sheet is impressively thick and gives Antarctica the highest average elevation of any continent on Earth: some 7,200 feet (2,200 meters) above sea level. Its high-standing surface contributes to the predominant cold of Antarctica.

Antarctica’s atmosphere is also exceedingly dry: The White Continent is, in fact, a true polar desert, overall receiving very scanty precipitation. (Outside of some coastal areas, Antarctica doesn’t get impressive snowfall: This is a snow-and-ice realm because what does fall mostly doesn’t melt, accumulating to great depth and transforming snow into glacial ice.) With its low water-vapor content, the dry air over Antarctica does not efficiently hold heat and re-transfer it to the ground: yet another “chilling” element.

The west-east-flowing Antarctic Circumpolar Current (aka the West Wind Drift) girdling the Southern Ocean to the north of Antarctica, and the powerful westerly winds that drive it, isolate the White Continent from warmer temperate and subtropical waters and airmasses, which in the Northern Hemisphere transfer significant amounts of heat to the high latitudes.

It’s worth noting there’s also a big-time windchill factor at play in parts of Antarctica. This is not only the coldest and the driest, but also the windiest continent, and the fiercest winds are of the katabatic variety, spilling down off the high, frigid wastes of the Antarctic Polar Plateau to roar over the coastline, sometimes in excess of 150 miles per hour (130 knots).

Technically, we’ve already answered this question, given we’ve established Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth. But why is Antarctica colder than the Arctic, which, after all, is subject to the same low-angle sunlight and long periods of winter darkness in its opposite position around the North Pole?

Here again, there are a number of reasons, but the primary reason is Antarctica is a large, high-standing landmass surrounding the South Pole, whereas the Arctic is primarily ocean; the North Pole sits on sea ice, not a high-elevation continental ice sheet.

Water heats up and cools down more slowly than land, so the mostly liquid Arctic doesn’t plunge to the kind of low temperatures the ice-smothered terra firma of Antarctica experiences. And, indeed, this is another important reason for Antarctica’s coldness: Much of its interior lies far away from the moderating effects of seawater, which are made further remote in winter when a huge expansion of Antarctica’s bordering sea ice occurs.

(The temperature of the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is less variable and less extreme than the continent itself, averaging between -2.2 °C/28 °F and 10 °C/50 °F across the year. Maybe consider doing a “polar plunge” on your next sightseeing cruise to Antarctica!)

Outside of some fringing mountains, the Arctic’s also generally much lower in elevation than Antarctica—again, because most of it’s open water or thin sea ice. Furthermore, warm, northward-flowing sea currents such as the Gulf Stream help transfer heat toward the Arctic Ocean, whereas, as we’ve mentioned, Antarctica’s Southern Ocean is more cut off from such heat-transporting circulations.

As we noted toward the top—and as you can read about in greater detail in our article on Antarctica’s climate—the White Continent is not one single uniform climate, and not all parts of it experience the ferocious cold characteristic of the ice-sheet interior.

Coastal areas, especially the heavily maritime-influenced west side of the Antarctic Peninsula, are substantially milder on account of the tempering effects of the adjoining ocean and its air masses. The Antarctic Peninsula is also warmer because it extends farther north than any other part of Antarctica, nosing outside of the Antarctic Circle.

Many parts of the Antarctic coast range between -10 and -30 °C (14 to -22 °F) in winter and about 0 °C (32 °F) in summer, but on the Antarctic Peninsula—narrow, north-reaching, and ocean-surrounded as it is—daily highs in summer can surpass 10 °C (50 °F).

Most tourists to Antarctica stick to the coastline, and mainly along the Antarctic Peninsula. The peak of tourism season in Antarctica coincides with the height of the austral summer, too. In other words, most travelers here experience the White Continent’s balmiest conditions, a far cry from the subzero harshness of Antarctica’s interior and its winter season.

Antarctica’s maximum cold can be found up on the ice-piled Antarctic Polar Plateau (also known as the East Antarctic Plateau) and its ice domes and rises. Vostok Station, a Russian research base on the Polar Plateau, recorded a low temperature of -89.2 °C (-128.6 °F) in the winter of 1983: the coldest directly measured temperature ever. (Compare that to the coldest permanently inhabited spots on the planet: Verkhoyansk and Oimekon in northeastern Siberia, both of which have recorded lows of -67.8 °C/-90 °F. Teeth-chattering, sure, but child’s play compared to the worst Antarctica can serve up.)

But there are many higher places on the Polar Plateau than Vostok, which sits at about 11,444 feet (3,488 meters), and so its 1983 record is just the tip of the iceberg (if you will).

The average annual temperature at Ridge A, for example, part of an ice-ridge system between Dome F (Fuji) and Dome A (Argus) in East Antarctica, has been estimated to be -74 °C (-94 °F). In the austral winter of 2010, satellite measurements recorded a low temperature along this ice-ridge terrain of -93.2 °C (-135.8 °F), beating out that Vostok reading by a fair margin.

So, what is the coldest place on Earth? Recent research suggests that topographic hollows along East Antarctica’s ice divide close to the Southern Pole of Inaccessibility probably are: They appear capable of plunging to wintertime temperatures of -98 °C (-144.4 °F) or lower. Yikes!

Given it hosts by far the largest ice sheet on the planet—an unparalleled reservoir of freshwater, which could drastically raise global sea level should it melt off—Antarctica is at the forefront of concerns over climate change. A huge amount of research is being devoted to identifying the potential effects of warming temperatures on the White Continent, including those that may be already well underway.

There’s much we don’t know about how the climate is changing in Antarctica, but it does seem clear that the trends are not uniform. West Antarctica, and especially the Antarctic Peninsula, appear to be on a clear warming trajectory, something not definitively seen, by contrast, in East Antarctica. In fact, parts of East Antarctica, including the South Pole itself, have cooled some in recent decades.

The winter of 2021 saw the coldest six months on record in Antarctica, with an average seasonal temperature of -60.9 °C (-77.6 °F). But that was a short-term phenomenon, not necessarily shedding much light on long-term climatic patterns.

Certainly the significant warming being seen, for example, along the Antarctic Peninsula, and evidence suggesting numerous Antarctic ice shelves—thought to be vital for slowing the movement and melt of the inland ice-sheet glaciers feeding them—are receding, are ringing alarm bells.

Read more about the possible threats posed by climate change in Antarctica here.

Curious how Antarctica’s climate and weather—not to mention other natural phenomena—influence travel to the White Continent? You can learn more about the best time to visit this extraordinary place here.

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