Top 10 Amazing Facts About Antarctica
The Antarctic is a continent, not just a place where the magnetic and true South Poles live. Although no one lives there permanently – in fact because no one lives there permanently – this is a fascinating place and reminds us that we live in a world of incredible geographic diversity and an amazing physical confluence of matter that somehow formed itself into a planet.
It is a stunningly beautiful place.
10. The Antarctic Convergence
The Antarctic Convergence, also known as the Polar Front, is a figurative line in the ocean around the Antarctic continent, around 55 degrees south, where the cold waters of the Antarctic Circumpolar current (the biggest current in the world) meet the warmer waters coming down from the north.
This figurative line is really a zone about 40 km (25 miles) wide where the different waters mix. Cold water from Antarctica drops below the warmer waters from the north and the Antarctic current moves water south of the Convergence from west to east while water in the Convergence, and north of it, moves east to west.
The Antarctic Convergence creates a barrier for marine life so the Southern Ocean is largely a closed ecosystem. It also interacts with the Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans, influencing weather patterns in the entire southern hemisphere.
Image courtesy of polardiscovery.whoi.edu
9. What Animals Live in Antarctica
The short answer is that there are loads of sea based animals, plenty of birds and a few insects, but no land animals live in Antarctica. No vertebrate land animals anyway. Well, no native, vertebrate land animals…
There are loads of seals, penguins and all sorts of birds that use the land but these are not land animals. There are also various invertebrates including beetles, midges, ticks and a wingless fly. There are no ants. A bonus if you’re having a picnic.
Some of the animals are very cool. The Emperor penguin has so many interesting things about it that it could have its own list. For instance, they can dive to depths of 500 m (1,640 ft) in search of food, or maybe just because they can. The albatross has wings that are six feet long, each. It can fly at 160 kph (100 mph) with good winds, sleep on the sea and drink sea water. Seals have adapted flippers to replace legs and penguins have got flippers instead of wings.
Many of the fish here have a chemical, glycopeptide, in their blood that is very similar to antifreeze.
Watch This. Wow!
8. The Longest Days and Nights on Earth
The earth spins on an axis that is tilted by about 23 degrees from the perpendicular in relation to the line of its orbit around the Sun. This means that in the southern summer Antarctica is facing towards the Sun and in the southern winter it is facing away from the Sun.
At the South Pole the Sun sets on the autumn equinox, March 21st and rises again on the spring equinox, September 21st. (As an aside, the Antarctic Circle is defined as the place where night and day are both 12 hours long at each equinox. The Sun is directly over the equator at that point).
So both the days and nights at the South Pole are six months long.
7. The Coldest Place on Earth
The coldest temperature ever recording on earth was recorded in east Antarctica by a NASA satellite in December 2013. It was -93.3 C (-136 F).
Butane freezes at -138 C (-261 F) so your lighter should still work there, if the metal bits weren’t frozen together.
Alcohol freezes at -127 C (-197 F) but everything else in wine, beer and spirits would be frozen so you’d just have to take neat alcohol.
Acetone freezes at -94 C (-137 F) so if you’re lucky your nail polish remover should still work, if you could get the lid off.
Carbon Dioxide freezes at -79 C (-110 F) so… not sure if the CO2 freezes in the air and falls to the ground as dry ice. The whole landscape would be like a rock concert. Your CO2 fire extinguisher wouldn’t work.
6. Rainfall in the Antarctic
The Antarctic is the driest place on earth and meets the technical definition of a desert. It has average annual precipitation (rainfall and snow) of just 16.6 cm (6.5 in).
What it takes 365 days to get in Antarctica, Zurich gets in 57 days, Sydney gets in 50 days, New York gets in 50 days, Fiji gets in 29 days, Singapore gets in 27 days, Yukashima (Japan) gets in 12 days, parts of Vancouver Island get in 9 days and Mount Waialeale in Hawaii gets in 6 days. Imagine getting 6 days of rain and then nothing for another 359 days. Hmmm.
There are some parts of the Antarctic that haven’t had rain in millions of years. Hmm Hmmmm.
The snow that falls here turns to ice and gets covered by snow again which turns into more ice and so on. These layers of ice trap air and scientists have been able to drill into the ice and find air from 800,000 years ago. They have found a spot where they think they can get air from 1.5 million years ago.
Wonder what that ice would taste like? Imagine taking a bag home and having friends around for Scotch on 1.5 million year old rocks. That would be pretty special.
Great video on drilling into the ice and what they can do with it.
5. Size of the Antarctic
The Antarctic is 13,830,000 sq km (5,340,000 sq miles) in size, representing a bit less than 10% of the entire earth’s land surface.
In terms of land area, it is bigger than Europe, roughly 1.5 times the size of the US, Canada and China (each, not combined, they’re all about the same size), 1.6 times the size of Brazil, nearly twice the size of Australia, 5 times the size of India and 22 times the size of France. The UK would fit into the Antarctic 57 times.
4. Antarctica Has Heaps of Ice
The Antarctic has around 90% of the world’s ice which equates to around 65% of the world’s fresh water. In some places the ice is more than 4.5 km (2.8 miles) thick. If it all melted the sea level would go up by about 60 m (200 ft).
The snow that falls on the South Pole turns to ice and then starts ‘flowing’ towards the coast. It takes about 100,000 years to make the journey and then breaks off as an iceberg into the sea, eventually melting into the Southern Ocean.
The largest known iceberg to break off Antarctica was almost 295 km (183 miles) long, 37 km (23 miles) wide and was thought to weigh more than 3 billion tons. Known as B-15, the remnants of this iceberg were spotted off the coast of New Zealand in late 2006. The biggest piece was still nearly 2 km (1 ¼ miles) long and 37 m (120 ft) high.
See how icebergs begin.
3. There is No Time Zone in the Antarctic
Given that the days and nights can be up to six months in length, and you are sort of in the east and west at the same time, it kind of makes sense not to have time zones. Huh? What might be a 10 hour time difference at the equator is actually just across the other side of that big ice field over there and it’s only 30 minutes away.
Anyway, scientists and people down there tend to use the time of their home cities and pretty much agree on what works in their particular set of huts.
Image courtesy of althistory.wikia.com
2. Antarctica Has Active Volcanos
Surprisingly Antarctica has over 30 volcanos, many of which are active or have been active in the last 100 years.
Mount Sidley is the highest volcano at 4,285 metres (14,058 ft) but Mount Erebus is probably better know because it’s an active volcano. It is also the second highest volcano in Antarctica at 3,794 m (12,448 ft).
The summit of Mount Erebus has one of only five lava lakes at its summit and the consistently low level of volcanic activity has made it an ideal volcano to study.
It was first climbed by members of Shackleton’s exploration party in 1908.
Tragically a sightseeing DC-10 flight from New Zealand crashed into Mount Erebus in 1979 killing all of the 257 people on board. Each summer when the snow thaws on the slopes of the mountain debris from the crash can be seen clearly from the air.
1. No Country Owns the Antarctic
Now that’s pretty amazing. The only place in the world that hasn’t been claimed by another country. Well there are territories, but it’s all just a gentleman’s agreement so we can put our scientists somewhere. The reality is that there is no government in Antarctica, you don’t need a passport to get in, it hasn’t been in a war, it doesn’t have borders that need protecting, it doesn’t have rivers that need damming, it doesn’t have elections or companies or TV stations.
There is a lot of coal in the Antarctic and no doubt lots of oil and gas. Luckily for the seals and penguins it’s just too far away, too hostile and surrounded by an ocean that is way too treacherous for cargo ships to cross, to try to exploit it.
48 countries have signed a treaty that designates the Antarctic a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science”. Until someone works out a cost effective way of exploiting it that is.
Beautiful video to finish this list.
James Cook was the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle, doing so twice in 1773 and again in 1774 as the captain of the HMS Resolution. He got to within 130 km (80 miles) of the Antarctic mainland but was forced back by the ice pack before spotting it. If he’d got there it would have cemented his place as the greatest explorer of his era.