Antarctica is the coldest and windiest place on earth. Almost the entire continent is covered with ice that is up to 5 km thick near the South Pole. Antarctica is a desert because it doesn’t get very much precipitation. Some areas get less than 70 mm a year, in the form of snow.

Antarctica has an area of about 14 million square kilometers, about one and a half times the size of Europe. The continent consists of many mountain ranges that rise up through the ice sheets. Ice flows down the valleys to the sea where it turns into ice shelves. When ice breaks off icebergs are formed.

Much of the ocean around Antarctica is frozen all year round. Some of it melts during the summer months but it still extends a few hundred km from the coast.

Even though the continent gets more sunlight than the equator it is the coldest place on Earth because the ice reflects heat back into space. The average winter temperature is about -70° C. Soviet scientists at the Vostok station recorded -89.2° in July 1983. Strong winds make the climate even more extreme and impossible to live in.

Image:Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica team,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Animal Life

Today life only exists near the coastal areas of the continent. Insects, primitive plants and mosses can be found. In the interior part of the continent algae live in rocks that are free of ice. Over 20 types of seabirds breed in the Antarctic region, The best known are the penguins. Tiny sea creatures that look like shrimps called krill are important to the continent’s ecosystem. They are food for whales, seals, birds and other smaller animals.

Emperor penguins near Antarctic coast
Image:Image ID: corp2417, NOAA Corps CollectionPhotographer: Giuseppe ZibordiCredit: Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA,
Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Antarctica’s Past

More than 200 million years ago Antarctica, South America, India and Australia formed one big continent called Gondwana. As time went on this big mass of land broke apart and the continents started to drift away from each other. Under the ice sheets there is evidence that Antarctica once had a tropical climate. Fossils of ancient kangaroos were also discovered – proof that Australia and Antarctica once belonged together. The largest fossil ever discovered was a 9 meter long whale said to be about 40 million years old.

Exploration and Discovery

For centuries the existence of Antarctica was not known. In the 19th century expeditions from the United States, France and Britain explored the oceans and the coast of Antarctica. In the early 1900s the race got underway to reach the South Pole. The first explorer to reach the South Pole was Roald Amundsen of Norway in 1911. Close behind him was a British naval officer Robert Scott. Scott reached the Pole about a month later but he died along with his men on the trip back.

In the years that followed, explorers and scientists from many countries travelled to Antarctica. Among them was Admiral Richard Byrd, who became the first to pilot an airplane over the South Pole.

The modern age of exploration began at the end of the 1950s when many countries started setting up scientific stations on the continent. In December 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 nations. These nations have promised to use Antarctica for peaceful purposes. The treaty also forbids nuclear testing and military activities.

Amundsen’s team reach the South Pole in 1911
Image: Olav Bjaaland , Public Domain, via Wikipedia

The Present and the Future

Scientists study Antarctica in order to learn many of the world’s secrets. The ozone layer has become very thin over the continent. The continent is also believed to have mineral resources like oil, coal and many valuable metals. But Antarctica’s harsh climate makes finding these raw materials very difficult. In addition many governments are willing to protect Antarctica’s environment in the future. 24 countries signed a treaty that will forbid the drilling of oil and mining for the next 50 years.

Amundsen-Scott station at the South Pole
Image: Cmichel67, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons



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