What Is Antarctica? A Desert, Country, Continent...?
Antarctica: most back-of-beyond, most mysterious, most otherworldly corner of the Earth (not counting, we suppose, the depths of the ocean).
What is Antarctica, anyhow? You probably have at least a vague notion of some icy white “nothingness” at the bottom of the world—although, to be clear, this is no nothingness, composed as it is of one polar astonishment after another.
In this guide, we serve up a cliff-notes sort of sketch of the White Continent (as Antarctica’s often called), and also provide a slew of links to more in-depth articles on specific topics, from geography and ecology to Antarctica’s unique management and human footprint.
Antarctica is the fifth-largest, highest-standing, and southernmost continent on Earth. With an average elevation of 7,546 feet (2,300 meters) and dominating the southern polar region, some 98 percent of its landmass lies buried in ice, including the Geographic South Pole, the southernmost point on the planet. Indeed, Antarctica plays host to by far the largest ice sheet on the planet, covering some 5.4 million square miles (14 million square kilometers).
And the great ice sheet of the interior doesn’t account for the entirety of Antarctica’s frozen majesty: The glaciers draining the Antarctic Ice Sheet meet the Southern Ocean in the form of ice shelves, which are marginal fringes of glacial ice anchored to the coastline or submerged bedrock. Beyond the ice-crusted rim of Antarctica, meanwhile, sea ice forms a seasonally expanding and contracting ice pack that girdles the continent and, at its winter maximum, extends well north of the Antarctic Circle and covers about 7 million square miles (19 million square kilometers).
The geographic region referred to as the Antarctic extends beyond the roughly 5.5-million-square-mile (14.2-million-square-kilometer) expanse of the continental Antarctica itself. The Antarctic Region is often climatically and oceanographically defined as lying south of the so-called Antarctic Convergence, aka Polar Front: the boundary between cold, north-flowing polar waters to the south and warmer temperate waters of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans to the north. While the line of the Antarctic Convergence is uneven, it’s roughly located at about 55 degrees latitude, and is often taken to be the northern limit of the Southern Ocean, sometimes called the Antarctic Ocean, which encircles Antarctica.
Most of the Antarctic, and nearly all of Antarctica proper, lies south of the Antarctic Circle, situated at about 66°30′ S, south of which the Sun does not set and does not rise for at least one day in the austral summer and winter, respectively.
The Antarctic Region encompasses a number of Antarctic island groups, including the South Orkneys and South Shetlands. And right on the periphery or just outside the Antarctic are the many sub-Antarctic islands, such as spectacularly scenic South Georgia, which make their own fabulous (and farflung) destinations.
That’s a decent sketch of Antarctic basics, but there’s so much more to dig into. What is Antarctica? Well, Antarctica is…
As in: the coldest place on Earth. Antarctica is significantly colder than the Arctic—the two poles aren’t created equal! In the interior of the White Continent, typical overall temperatures range between about -20 °C (-4 °F) in the summer and -60 °C (-76 °F) in the winter. And that’s just an average: Winter lows on the heights of the ice divide of East Antarctica may fall below -98 °C (-144.4 °F)!
Wait, a desert? What about all of that snow and ice? In point of fact, Antarctica is the driest of all continents, fully qualifying as a vast polar desert. While it’s true the Antarctic Peninsula and coastal regions see some precipitation, in some parts of the McMurdo Dry Valleys in East Antarctica it hasn’t rained or snowed for some 14 million years, so on average across the continent the level of precipitation is low enough to classify all of Antarctica as a polar desert.
(Interestingly, while Antarctica itself is classified as a desert, many of the nearby and subantarctic islands including the South Shetland Islands, South Georgia and the Falklands are considered tundra, having a thick ‘permafrost’ layer of soil that stays frozen all year round while a thinner surface layer of soil thaws during summer months to allow lichens, mosses and small shrubs to grow.)
With its extreme polar climate and remote setup way down at the bottom of the world, Antarctica is the wildest and most inhospitable place on Earth, at least if we’re talking “dry land.” But experiencing its primal magic doesn’t have to mean roughing it, by any means…
Antarctica, despite what you may think, is not some lifeless waste—far from it! While it’s true that truly terrestrial animal life here maxes out, sizewise, at the insect scale, Antarctica does have some hardy plants and its marine ecosystem is gloriously rich: baleen whales, orcas, leopard and Weddell and crabeater seals, a smorgasbord of seabirds, colossal squid and the all-important Antarctic krill—oh, and penguins, of course! The Antarctic holds its own with any wildlife-watching destination in the world, as any cruisegoer down here finds out firsthand.
Think Antarctica’s one giant white void? Think again! From the lurid crimson of Blood Falls and the vividness of watermelon snow to striped icebergs and green flashes, color down here in this kingdom of snow, ice, and rock takes on extra-special pizzazz…
Whether it’s the sense that the Earth’s primordial ice ages never quite let up their grip or the (refreshing) temporal bewilderment of the Midnight Sun and the Polar Night—or simply the rawness, the pristineness of the landscape—Antarctica feels deeply, spectacularly timeless. The fact that this is, to some extent anyway, the place where time zones go to die only adds to that perception…
Antarctica is inherently mysterious: Its physical environment alone makes it seem almost alien. And then there are the rumors of actual aliens. And Nazi hideaways. And ancient pyramids. And mystery holes and gravity anomalies. Dive deeper into the greatest mysteries of Antarctica here!
Coldest, driest, windiest, iciest, wildest—Antarctica’s phenomenal in the superlatives department on a lot of levels. And then there are the nitty-gritty phenomena going on down here: from the “Icy Finger of Death” to the Southern Lights.
All of the natural distinctions aside, Antarctica’s utterly unique from a geopolitical standpoint as well. Claimed in part by several countries but controlled by no one sovereign power, and host to no indigenous human population, the White Continent is set aside for scientific research and international collaboration under the one-of-a-kind Antarctic Treaty.
Not even definitively glimpsed until the 19th century, forbidding in a way no other terrestrial realm is, Antarctica has seen some of the defining feats of exploration and adventure in modern times—not least the epic exploits of the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, enshrining such legends as Roald Amundsen, Robert Falcon Scott, Ernest Shackleton, and Douglas Mawson. Today’s Antarctic researchers are still on a great, ongoing journey of discovery, with fresh scientific revelations across a whole variety of disciplines turned out on a regular basis.
And Antarctica remains a singular destination for travelers who are adventurous in spirit and insatiably curious by disposition, presenting spectacles a comparative few will ever have the privilege to see. Start your adventure here.
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