Hidden away from the rest of the world at the Earth’s southernmost tip, Antarctica is arguably the most intriguing and mysterious places on our planet. The coveted seventh continent has been capturing the imagination of adventurous spirits for centuries, promising awe-inspiring wonders and life changing experiences.
Embark on a journey of discovery with us as we unveil our favourite weird and wonderful facts about Antarctica – from its its extraordinary geography and unique wildlife to its scientific and historical significance.
But first, some fast facts about Antarctica!
- Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest and windiest continent on Earth
- Antarctica covers 14.2 million square kilometres (5.5 million square miles)
- The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest ice store on earth
- Its landmass covers 14 million kilometres (5.4 million square miles)
- Its mass is 30 million cubic metres (7.2 million cubic miles)
- Its average depth is 2,160 metres (7,000 feet), with a maximum depth of 4,776 metres (15,669 feet
- Ice covers roughly 98% of Antarctica, which equates to 90% of the Earth’s ice and 70% of our fresh water
1. Antarctica holds most of the world's fresh water
An incredible 60-90% of the world’s fresh water is locked in Antarctica’s vast ice sheet. The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest on Earth, covering an incredible 14 million km² (5.4 million square miles) of Antarctic mountain ranges, valleys and plateaus. 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.
At its deepest, Antarctica’s ice is 4.5 kilometres (2.7 miles) thick – that’s half the height of Mt Everest! If it all melted, global sea levels would rise about 60 metres (200 feet).
2. Antarctica is 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 precipitation the area receives as rain, snow, mist or fog. A desert is any region that receives very little annual precipitation.
The average annual rainfall at the South Pole over the past 30 years was just over 10 mm (0.4 in). Although there is more precipitation towards the coast, the average across the continent is low enough to classify Antarctica as a polar desert.
So while Antarctica may be covered in ice, it has taken an incredible 45 million years to grow to its current thickness, because so little rain falls there.
As well as being one of the driest continents on Earth, Antarctica is also the coldest, windiest and highest.
3. Antarctica used to be as warm as Melbourne
Given that the coldest ever land temperature was recorded in Antarctica of -89.2°C (-128.6°F), 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 across Antarctica reached up to 17°C (62.6°F). 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 (37.4°F), five times the average increase on Earth.
This has led to some changes, for example where and when penguins form colonies and sea ice forms. It also means that the lush mosses of the Antarctic Peninsula have a slightly longer growing season.
5. There is no Antarctic time zone
The question of time in Antarctica is a tricky one. At the South Pole the lines of longitude, which give us different time zones around the globe, all meet at a single point. Most of Antarctica experiences 6 months of constant daylight in summer and 6 months of darkness in winter. Time starts to feel a little different without the normal markers for day and night.
Scientists working in Antarctica generally stay in the time zone of the country they departed from, but this can cause some issues. For example, on the Antarctic Peninsula you can find stations from Chile, China, Russia, the United Kingdom and many other countries. You can imagine that if all of these neighbouring stations, keep to their home time zones it could get a little confusing trying to share data and resources without accidentally waking one another up in the middle of the night!
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.
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, an imaginary line which passes through Greenwich in the United Kingdom at 0 degrees of longitude. If you stand at the South Pole and face towards Greenwich, everything to your left is west Antarctica and everything to your right is east Antarctica.
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, is the southernmost active volcano on Earth. Located on Ross Island, this icebound volcano has some unique features such as ice fumaroles and 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 humans caught their first glimpse of Antarctica 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, everyone agreed on the need for a peaceful resolution. In December 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 annual meetings, where decisions are made about how human activity in Antarctica is managed. 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 and 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.
Antarctica is a truly incredible place, unlike anywhere else on earth.
Start planning your adventure today!
Bonus FAQs answered by Antarctic expert Nina Gallo
How many species are there in Antarctica?
There are more than 9,000 known animal species in Antarctica, including 46 species of bird, 10 cetaceans (including killer whales and humpback whales), 6 species of seal and 7 Antarctic penguin species.
There are also at least 235 species in Antarctica’s oceans, from mud-dwelling worms to sea cucumbers, sea snails and sea birds, and researchers keep discovering more. Learn more about Antarctica wildlife.
How many plants are there in Antarctica?
There are no trees or shrubs in Antarctica, and there are only two flowering plants: Antarctic hair grass (Deschampsia antarctica) and Antarctic pearlwort (Colobanthus quitensis).
But there are over 1000 species of fungi, 700 species of algae and 20-odd species of macro-fungi. You can also find around 100 species of mosses, 25 species of liverworts, and 300 to 400 species of lichens in Antarctica. And living in these micro-forests are 67 species of insect!
How big is Antarctica?
Antarctica covers an area of 14.2 million km² (5.5 million square miles). This is about twice the size of Australia, and larger than the United States of America and Mexico combined.
Do fish in Antarctica really have anti-freeze?
Yes! There are several fish in Antarctica that have special ‘anti-freeze’ proteins in their blood to stop them from freezing in the polar ocean.
While freshwater freezes at 0ºC (32ºF), salt water can drop to -1.8ºC (28.75ºF) before freezing. Anti-freeze proteins help Antarctic fish in sub-zero temperatures to lower their freezing temperature, so they can survive in these freezing waters.
Do people swim in Antarctica?
Yes, people do swim in Antarctica. In fact, each summer hundreds of daring travellers take on the polar plunge*. The Australian Antarctic Program even has a traditional midwinter swim, with station staff taking a quick dip through a hole in the sea ice!
*We advise to seek medical advice before participating.
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 with Aurora, sharing her passions for the natural world, human stories and adventure with all the wonderful people she meets. Nina is the author of Antarctica, published by Australian Geographic in 2020.