When people are deciding which to visit first, the Arctic or Antarctica, they’re often surprised to discover just how different they are. From the ancient, living cultures of the north to the immense, uninhabited ice sheet of the south, let’s take a look at Antarctica and the Arctic, and some of the main differences between them.
Antarctica vs the Arctic: Fast Facts
Best time to visit: October - April
What animals live on land?
Many penguins nest on land. Seals rest on land or ice. Microscopic invertebrates live amongst the moss.
Do penguins live there? Yes
Do polar bears live there? No
What plants are there?
Only two flowering plants, plus many mosses, lichens and liverworts.
Do humans live there?
Antarctica has no permanent human population. There are over 60 research stations, where staff reside seasonally or annually.
Largest ice sheet
Antarctic ice sheet: 14 million km² (5.4 million square miles).
Is it a country?
Summer solstice (longest day): December 21
Winter solstice (shortest day): June 21
Best time to visit: May - September
What animals live on land?
Musk ox, reindeer, caribou, arctic foxes, arctic hares, wolves, lemmings, voles, polar bears.
Do penguins live there? No
Do polar bears live there? Yes
What plants are there?
Yes. There are many small shrubs, grasses and sedges in the arctic tundra.
Do humans live there?
Yes. Humans have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years.Today there are more than 2 million people living north of 60°N, many in modern settlements.
Largest ice sheet
Greenland ice sheet: 1.71 million km² (0.66 million square miles).
Is it a country?
There are 8 countries within the Arctic region: Norway, Sweden, Finland, Russia, the United States (Alaska), Canada, Denmark (Greenland), and Iceland.
Summer solstice (longest day): June 21
Winter solstice (shortest day): December 21
*In February 2020, staff at the Argentinian Marambio research base on Seymour Island recorded a new record high temperature of 20.75°C (69.35°F). This had not been verified by the World Meteorological Organization at the time of writing.
The Arctic vs Antarctica: An Introduction
The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land, at the northern reaches of the Northern Hemisphere, where polar bears roam. It is dominated by the Arctic Ocean and includes Greenland, Svalbard and several other landmasses. Humans have lived in the Arctic for thousands of years, and still do today. The Arctic landscape is extremely diverse, from the dramatic icebergs that calve off the Greenland Ice Sheet to the delicate flowers and berries that bloom across the Arctic tundra in summer, and brilliant displays from deciduous shrubs in the autumn.
Antarctica is a landmass surrounded by ocean at the southernmost extreme of the Southern Hemisphere. Antarctica is a huge continent covered in ice, completely surrounded by the Southern Ocean and quite isolated from the rest of the planet. It was first visited by humans in 1820, after centuries of failed attempts. Antarctica has no permanent human population, although each year thousands of scientists, researchers and station support staff live on Antarctic research stations and become short-term ‘Antarcticans’. In the summer months, thousands of tourists make the journey to experience the otherworldly icescapes and wildlife of the south.
Why is Antarctica a continent but the Arctic is not?
Although both poles are covered in ice, what lies beneath the ice is very different from north to south. If you could lift the ice off the South Pole in Antarctica you would find a rocky landmass (or landmasses) with gorges, canyons and mountain ranges, much like the other great continents on our planet. Antarctica was the last of the Earth’s seven continents to be discovered by humans.
By contrast, there is no single Arctic continent under the Arctic ice. If you lifted the sea ice off the North Pole, you would find the Arctic Ocean. Although there is no Arctic continent, there are many smaller landmasses in the Arctic, including Greenland, Svalbard, Franz Josef Land, Wrangel Island and parts of Asia, North America and Europe.
Which is bigger, the Arctic or Antarctica?
The Arctic is just slightly larger than Antarctica. The Arctic covers an area of approximately 14.5 million square km (5.5 million square miles). Antarctica comes a close second with an area of about 14.2 million square km (5.4 million square miles), roughly twice the size of Australia.
Which is colder, the Arctic or Antarctica?
Antarctica and the Arctic are the two coldest places on Earth, but Antarctica is much colder than the Arctic. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Antarctica at -93.3°C (-135.9°F). Scientists registered this staggeringly cold temperature on the East Antarctic Ice Sheet in 2013, after analysing 32 years of satellite data.
In 2020, scientists confirmed the coldest temperature in the Arctic was in Greenland in December 1991, when the mercury dropped to a very chilly -69.6°C (-93.3°F).
What are the average temperatures in Antarctica and the Arctic?
The average winter temperature at the North Pole is -40°C (-40°F). This is seriously cold, but not quite as cold as the winter average at the South Pole, which hovers around -60°C (-76°F)!
Summer temperatures also differ from pole to pole. The average summer temperature at the North Pole is barely freezing at 0°C (-32°F), while the South Pole remains much colder at -28°C (-18°F).
Why are the poles so cold?
There are many reasons why the poles are cold, including:
1. Dark winters
For six months over the winter, the sun doesn’t rise above the horizon within the polar circle (66°30′ North and South). Without the warming effect of direct sunlight the poles get very, very cold.
2. Angle of sunlight
When the sun returns to the polar regions in summer, they still receive less sunlight than other places on earth due to their position at the north and south extremes of the globe. In the polar regions, the sun has to push through more atmosphere, and is spread over a bigger area than at the equator.
3. Lots of ice
Large reserves of ice have a cooling effect on the air above them. Both the Arctic and Antarctica have large ice sheets and seasonal sea ice, both of which help keep the poles cold.
4. Large reflective surfaces
The white surfaces of ice and snow are highly reflective. They radiate most of the heat that reaches them back out to space, keeping the air above them relatively cool.
Why is Antarctica so much colder than the Arctic?
Larger ice sheet
Antarctica is covered by a massive ice sheet twice the size of Australia. It is the largest ice sheet in the world, covering an area of 14 million square km (5.4 million square miles). This huge reservoir of ice cools the air above it and reflects most of the heat that reaches it back to space.
By contrast, the largest ice sheet in the Arctic, the Greenland Ice Sheet, is only one eighth the size of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Antarctica is at altitude
Antarctica is the highest continent on the planet, due to thick layers of ice that raise its average elevation to around 3,000 m (9,800 ft). Temperatures drop by about 1°C (33.8°F) for every 100 metres (320 feet) of altitude you gain, so Antarctica’s high altitude has a big impact on its temperature. Although the Arctic has many rugged mountain ranges and stunning alpine peaks, much of the region lies at sea level, on the Arctic Ocean.
The Arctic Ocean heats the atmosphere
Water warms and cools more slowly than land, so areas near the sea have fewer extremes of temperature. Antarctica is a landmass surrounded by ocean and the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land.
Even when it’s covered by ice, the Arctic Ocean has a moderating effect on the climate, helping to keep the Arctic slightly warmer than Antarctica. Although Antarctica is surrounded by sea, the cooling effect of the massive Antarctic Ice Sheet counteracts any moderating influence of the ocean, except near the coast.
Antarctica is the windiest continent on the planet, with winds reaching up to 327km/h (199 mph), almost three times stronger than hurricane force winds on the Beaufort Scale. These windy conditions mean that cold temperatures feel even colder in Antarctica due to wind chill.
What is the difference between the North and South Poles?
All at Sea or High and Dry?
The North Pole is located at sea level, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. By contrast, the South Pole is high and dry on top of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, which is 2.8 kilometres (1.7 miles) thick in this area. The South Pole is so far above sea level that some people who visit experience altitude sickness!
X marks the spot?
At the North Pole, the Arctic Ocean is frozen into huge plates of sea ice, which are constantly moving, so there is no official marker to mark its location. However, many visitors bring their own sign to commemorate the occasion!
The exact location of the South Pole is marked with a stake, which is stuck into the ice. There is just one slight problem: the ice sheet moves about 10 metres (30 feet) each year, so the stake has to be moved annually to remain accurate!
Who owns the poles?
The North Pole is located to the north of Canada, Denmark (Greenland), Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and the U.S (Alaska). While it doesn’t belong to a single nation, it has attracted the attention of several. In 2007, Russia sent two submarines more than 4 km (2.5 miles) below the surface to plant a one metre high titanium flag on the ocean floor, demonstrating their interest in the North Pole.
Nobody owns the South Pole. Instead, it is governed collectively under an international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty. At the time of writing, 54 nations had signed on to share responsibility for Antarctica.
Can you visit?
It’s possible for tourists to visit the North Pole by air or sea. But the only way to stand on the North Pole is to step out on floating sea ice!
The South Pole is so remote that no tourists can visit, but there is an Antarctic research station at the South Pole, where a small number of people live each year. The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, named for the first two expedition leaders to reach the South Pole, supports 150 researchers and support staff in summer, and 50 through the winter.
Are penguins in Antarctica or the Arctic?
If you’re craving some time with the wonderful penguins of the world, make sure you go south to Antarctica, because you won’t find any in the Arctic!
Penguins aren’t known for venturing north of the equator, although in 1936, some penguins found themselves unexpectedly relocated to the Arctic. But almost all penguin species live in the southern hemisphere, seven of these in Antarctica.
Free from the perils of land predators such as the foxes and polar bears of the Arctic, penguins have flourished in Antarctica. They nest in the open, either on the ice or on little piles of stones.
Do polar bears live in Antarctica or the Arctic?
Polar bears live in the Arctic, but not Antarctica. You can find polar bears across the Arctic from the U.S. (Alaska) and Canada to Russia, Greenland, and Norway (Svalbard). They even make occasional visits to the Geographic North Pole, in the middle of the Arctic Ocean.
Polar bears spend most of their lives on the sea ice, roaming across this frozen, constantly moving surface, hunting seals through cracks in the ice. Polar bears can also cover amazing distances at sea: they can swim 48 kilometres (30 miles) regularly, and up to 354 kilometres (220 miles) at a stretch, before they need to find sea ice or land to rest.
Do arctic foxes live in Antarctica?
There are no arctic foxes in Antarctica. Arctic foxes prefer to live in the arctic tundra, where they feed on lemmings, voles and other small mammals. Living in the Arctic also means they can tuck into a feast of rodents, insects and berries, none of which are found in Antarctica. Another favourite meal for arctic foxes is birds and their eggs – so it’s fortunate for penguins that arctic foxes aren’t found in Antarctica!
What animals live in the Arctic?
Polar bears are the largest land carnivore in the world and the largest member of the bear family. They spend most of their time on ice floes in the northern Arctic, feeding primarily on ringed seals. These impressive predators are also incredible swimmers, with records of polar bears swimming some 80 km (50 miles) from any land or floe.
Musk oxen have historically been associated with the hunting cultures of early mankind. Their meat and hides were used for food, clothing, and shelter, while the horns and bones were carved to make tools and crafts.
Smaller than the familiar red fox and with more rounded ears and muzzle, the arctic fox is distributed all around the Arctic in high latitudes and out on the open tundra. Arctic fox are well-adapted to the Arctic environment, and remain active all winter and live in the open.
The arctic hare is one of five species of Lagomorphs (the order that includes rabbits, hares and pikas) that live in the Arctic. Their fur is longer and finer than most temperate hares, and they have shorter ears. Fossil remains of Lepus Arcticus have been found in a 12,000-year-old Eskimo site in northern Greenland. The Inuit consume the meat of arctic hares and use the hide for clothing and bandages.
Reindeer are vegetarians and they eat most available types of vegetation, including new-growth leaves, lichens and even fine twigs. Their coat is very heavy and dense, and is predominantly brown to olive, although some populations in Greenland are almost completely white. The broad, flat structure of their feet allows the hooves to splay widely and act as snowshoes to travel over winter snows and the summertime spongy arctic tundra.
The walrus is the largest pinniped in the Arctic, with distinctive tusks which they use as weapons, or levers to help them move around on land. Walruses are gregarious, and they may haul out in herds of up to several thousand individuals. During the non-breeding season, groups are sexually segregated, and dominance is based on the size of their bodies and tusks.
There are only a dozen or so arctic birds that live in the Arctic all year round, including the gyrfalcon, raven, ptarmigan, snowy owl, redpolls, gulls (Ross’s and ivory), guillemots and the little auk. Most of the other 100 bird species that breed in the Arctic migrate to warmer climes to escape the harsh winter, including the Atlantic puffin, arctic tern and white-tailed eagle.
The bowhead, beluga and narwhal are year-round residents of the Arctic. However, many other whale species such as orca, humpback, and sperm whales are commonly found in these waters during the summer, visiting the Arctic to dine on the rich bounty of marine life in these productive waters.
There are a number of seals that live in arctic waters. The ringed seal is the most common and widespread seal in the Arctic. Harp seals are best known for the pure white coats of their young pups. Bearded seals have a circumpolar distribution and are permanent residents of the Arctic.
Find out more about some of the amazing animals you could spot on a voyage to the Arctic here.
What animals live in the Antarctica?
These flightless seabirds are extraordinary swimmers. With streamlined bodies like torpedoes, they use their flippers like wings for propulsion in the water, and their feet (and sometimes tail) to steer their course.
Penguins feed at sea, coming ashore to breed, rest and replace all their feathers at once in an annual catastrophic moult. With their mathematically precise huddles and pebble-stealing antics, they have developed some truly remarkable ways of thriving in the harsh Antarctic environment.
There are six Antarctic seal species that flourish in the cool haven of the Southern Ocean.
Weddell seals are the most southerly breeding mammal on Earth. Crabeater seals mostly eat krill – never crabs! Leopard seals are the second-largest of the Antarctic seals. The largest is the southern elephant seal, which is the largest seal on the planet. Fur seals are the only Antarctic seal that uses fur for insulation, in addition to blubber. Some Ross seal eyes are 7cm (2.75 in) in diameter, to help them see in the dark.
Antarctic krill (Euphasia superba) are small, shrimp-like crustaceans with large, black eyes and many small legs called thoracopods. There are an estimated 500 trillion Antarctic krill in the Southern Ocean, weighing 379 million tons. Scientists estimate that approximately half of this is eaten by the seals, penguins and whales that rely on krill as their main source of food.
Antarctica and the Southern Ocean are home to a diversity of seabirds, which often follow the ship as we sail. Several species of albatross can be spotted in these parts, including the royal, black-browed and wandering albatross, which has a wingspan up to 3.7 m (12 ft 2 in), the longest known wingspan on Earth. It’s not uncommon to spot giant petrels soaring past the bridge as we sail, or delicate Wilson’s storm petrels dancing on the surface of the water, foraging for copepods. Cape petrels, Antarctic prions, skuas, terns, cormorants and snow petrels also thrive on the Southern Ocean.
During the Antarctic summer, Antarctic waters are teeming with whales, which migrate to southern latitudes to feed on a bounty of Antarctic krill (Euphasia superba). They generally begin to arrive in Antarctica in November, reaching peak numbers in February and March.
One of the whales you’re most likely to see around Antarctica is the humpback whale. You might even be lucky enough to see one of them slapping their tails and pectoral fins on the water, or even breaching spectacularly, lifting their entire body out of the water! The relatively small, timid minke whales are slightly less common, but it’s worth keeping a look out for them taking a quick breath on the surface before diving deep. Orca (killer whales), fin whales and sei whales also cruise the Southern Ocean and occasionally surface, much to the excitement of everyone on board!
Find out more about some of the wonderful wildlife you could spot on a voyage to Antarctica here.
Thanks for staying with us to learn about some of the similarities and differences between our planet’s two polar regions, Antarctica and the Arctic. If you’re interested in learning more about Antarctica and the Arctic, or seeing for yourself what they’re all about, contact our expedition experts or your preferred travel advisor today.
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. Nina is the author of Antarctica, published by Australian Geographic in September 2020.