At the southernmost point of the world you'll find Antarctica, a continent blanketed in ice, almost twice the size of Australia (that’s roughly the size of the US and Mexico combined!).
In contrast to the Arctic, which is an ocean surrounded by land, Antarctica is ice-covered land surrounded by ocean. Isolated from the rest of the world, Antarctica has evolved into one of the most enigmatic and mysterious continents on Earth.
Here are 10 fun facts about Antarctica.
1. Antarctica holds most of the world's fresh water
An incredible 60-90% of the world’s fresh water is held in Antarctica’s vast ice sheet.
The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest on Earth, covering almost 14 million square kilometres of Antarctic mountain ranges, valleys and plateaus. In some places the ice is over 4km thick - that’s half the height of Mt Everest! In total, Antarctica holds some 26.5 million cubic kilometres of ice.
This leaves only 1% of Antarctica permanently ice-free. Some areas are ice-free in the summer, including many of the areas we visit on the Antarctic Peninsula.
2. Antarctica is a desert
With all of that fresh water - and the frigid temperatures! - how could Antarctica be a desert?
When most of us think of deserts we think of sand dunes and sizzling temperatures, but technically a desert doesn’t have to be hot or sandy, it’s more about how much rainfall the area receives. Any region that receives very little annual precipitation can be considered a desert.
Antarctica may be covered in ice, but it has taken 45 million years to grow to its current thickness, because so little rain falls in Antarctica.
The average annual rainfall at the South Pole over the past 30 years is just over a centimetre. Although there is more precipitation towards the coast, the average across the continent is low enough to classify Antarctica as a polar desert.
As well as being one of the driest continents on Earth, Antarctica is also the coldest, windiest and highest. It is a wonderful and stark land of extremes, quite unlike anywhere else on the planet.
3. Antarctica used to be as warm as Melbourne
Given that the coldest ever land temperature was recorded in Antarctica (−89.2°C at Russia’s Vostok Station in 1983), it can be hard to imagine Antarctica as a warm, temperate paradise. But Antarctica hasn’t always been an icy land locked in the grip of a massive ice sheet. In fact, Antarctica was once almost as warm as Melbourne is today.
Researchers have estimated that 40-50 million years ago, temperatures in Antarctica reached up to 17°C. Scientists have also found fossils showing that Antarctica was once covered with verdant green forests and inhabited by dinosaurs!
4. The Antarctic Peninsula is one of the most rapidly warming areas on Earth
The Antarctic Peninsula is warming more quickly than many other areas on Earth. In fact, it is one of the most rapidly warming areas on the planet. Over the past 50 years, average temperatures across the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 3°C, five times the average increase on Earth.
This has led to some changes, for example in where and when the sea ice forms, where and when penguins form colonies, and it has also allowed the lush mosses of the Antarctic Peninsula a slightly longer growing season.
5. There is no Antarctic time zone
Time can be a tricky conundrum in Antarctica. There are such extreme cycles of day and night, with close to 24 hours of light in the summer and the opposite in winter. And as you move towards the south pole, lines of longitude get closer and closer together until they meet. The result is that the normal indicators we use to help tell the time aren’t particularly helpful.
For scientists working in Antarctica, they generally stay in the time zone of the port they departed from, but this can mean that neighbouring stations are on very different time zones if they come from different countries. To add to the confusion, Australia’s Mawson, Casey and Davis stations are all on different time zones!
For travellers with Aurora Expeditions, we generally stay on Ushuaia time - unless we’re travelling to the Falkland Islands and South Georgia. Then we adjust to their local times, changing as we travel south.
6. Every way is north!
If you stand at the South Pole, you are at the southernmost point on Earth. It doesn’t matter which way you look, every direction is north. So why do we talk about the Antarctic Peninsula as being in West Antarctica, and the section directly south of Australia as East Antarctica?
It’s based on the prime meridian, the imaginary line which passes through Greenwich in the UK at 0 degrees of longitude. If you stand at the South Pole and face towards Greenwich, everything to your left is west and everything to your right is east.
7. Antarctica has active volcanoes
Antarctica is home to several volcanoes and two of them are active.
Mount Erebus, the second-highest volcano in Antarctica claims the title for southernmost active volcano on Earth. Located on Ross Island, this icebound volcano has some unique features such as ice fumaroles, twisted ice statues that form around gases that seep from vents near the volcanic crater.
The first ascent of Mt Erebus was made in 1908, when a team led by Australian scientist Edgeworth David, and including Douglas Mawson, completed an arduous and very chilly five day climb to the steaming crater.
The second active volcano is on Deception Island, a volcanic caldera in the South Shetland Islands. Once home to a thriving whaling station and later a scientific station, it was abandoned after the most recent eruption in 1969, and today it is a fascinating place that we visit on some of our Antarctic Peninsula voyages.
8. There's a subglacial lake that flows blood red
In 1911 on a remote glacier in East Antarctica, a strange phenomenon was observed. The lily white ice of the Taylor Glacier was being stained a deep red by water flowing from deep within the glacier.
For many years the source of the red colour remained a mystery, but in 2017 scientists announced that they had discovered the cause.
The water flowing from within the glacier was from a subglacial lake high in salt and oxidised iron, and when it came into contact with oxygen the iron rusted, giving the water its striking red shade - and its name, Blood Falls.
9. Antarctica has its own Treaty
When Antarctica was first discovered by humans in 1820, it was the only continent without an indigenous population. Several nations quickly made claims to the continent, which led to significant tension. While some countries argued that Antarctica was rightfully theirs, others heartily disagreed.
As tension mounted, the need for a peaceful resolution was agreed upon. In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty, an unprecedented international agreement to govern the continent together as a reserve for peace and science. Since then, 41 other countries have signed the Treaty and participate in decision-making. All decisions made within the Antarctic Treaty System are made by consensus, with collaboration and agreement as the central pillars.
Today, the Antarctic Treaty System has expanded to include strict guidelines for commercial fishing, sealing, and a complete ban on mining or mineral exploration.
10. Diamond dust floats in the air
Although there are low levels of precipitation in Antarctica, meteorological wonders abound and diamond dust is one of them!
Diamond dust is made of tiny ice crystals that precipitate out of humid air near the Earth’s surface. It’s a little like an icy fog. As ice crystals hang suspended in the air, sunlight causes them to sparkle, creating a glittering effect that looks like a million tiny floating diamonds. Diamond dust is also responsible for beautiful optical phenomena like sun dogs, halos and light pillars.
If any of these fun Antarctic facts have piqued your interest in visiting this unique continent, get in touch with our Expedition Experts for your Antarctic adventure of a lifetime!
Words by Nina Gallo, Aurora Expeditions' historian and certified PTGA polar guide.
Nina has been drawn to the polar regions since her first otherworldly experience of the midnight sun in 2002. Since then she has spent time in far northern Canada, the Himalayas, the Alps and deserts in America and Australia, always seeking out quiet, wild corners to explore. She feels immensely privileged to travel to these places and shares her passions for the natural world, human stories and adventure with all the wonderful people she meets.