Antarctica, I get chilly just by saying the name. Nevertheless, there are so many interesting things about the planet’s southernmost continent. Antarctica has fascinated researchers for years, because of its remote location and the fact that it’s basically a huge block of ice that keeps the Earth’s temperature in check, as well as storing most of the planet’s fresh water. Not only that, though, there are many things about Antarctica you might not know, like the fact that it has a lot of mountains and an even active volcano. You might think that Antarctica is a totally barren place and that nothing could possibly live there, but there are some animals that love everything about that chunk of land and have figured out how to thrive in that ecosystem. Many take advantage of the lack of possible predators in the area, so they live there in great quantities with others like them who call Antarctica home.
Sure, most of us humans may prefer to lay on a sunny beach with a drink in hand than to freeze to death, but despite that assumption, there are researchers who love Antarctica and spend most of the year over there. Some travel to the southernmost continent to study everything there is to know about it and to gather all the information they can get their hands on.
While I know most of you guys just want to see some pictures of cuddly penguins, you should keep in mind that there are many other cool things to know about the coldest place on Earth!
15. Desolate Climate
It should come as no surprise to you that Antarctica gets really cold. Even in the Antarctic summer in October when there’s constant daylight, the average temperature is -60 degrees Fahrenheit, and can reach up to -16 in December. This corresponds to the fourth quarter of the year. The third quarter, however, is the coldest. July is the coldest month of the year in Antarctica and temperatures average between -76 degrees and -81 degrees. If you also consider the wind factor, it can feel much colder than that.
As if these temperatures weren’t cold enough, you can also add that Antarctica has the coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth, at -128.56 degrees Fahrenheit, which is equivalent to -89.2 degrees Celsius. That’s crazy, considering your average freezer runs at about 0 degrees Fahrenheit.
14. It’s The Driest Place On Earth
Even though Antarctica might be covered in ice and snow, the cold temperatures make it one of the driest places on Earth. Within the continent, there are a series of valleys called the McMurdo Dry Valleys. These valleys are free of snow thanks to the mountains that surround them, and they’re one of the world’s harshest deserts. It is a place of extremely low humidity and it has been said that no living organism inhabits the area, but despite this assumption, studies have found that certain bacteria live on the inside of the bedrock. Incredibly enough, the McMurdo Dry Valleys are the driest place on Earth, and scientists brave this barren desert every year to study its alien characteristics.
The McMurdo Dry Valleys are also home to a saline lake called Lake Vida and to Antarctica’s largest river, the Onyx. Because of the cold winds in these valleys, the force of gravity pulls the air downhill, and while doing so, it starts to heat up as it descends, evaporating all ice, water, and snow. These winds are known as katabatic winds
13. It’s The Largest Single Mass Of Ice On Earth
If you’ve ever seen a picture of Antarctica, you can tell there’s a lot of ice involved. Maybe that’s one of the reasons I haven’t visited yet. I like to feel a warm blanket around me and a hot cup of cocoa in my hand every time I think about that huge chunk of ice. The ice sheet covers approximately 98% of the Antarctic continent. It covers 14 million square kilometers, but it’s not just the sheer ground it covers, the ice sheet has an average of thickness of 1 mile. If it wasn’t for all this ice, I don’t think Antarctica would be a continent at all, but thanks to the size of all this frozen water, it’s the fifth largest continent in the world.
In recent years, this ice sheet has started to recede because of the warmer temperatures, and watching the ice caps separate from the mainland is incredible. Building sized blocks of ice crumble and fall into the ocean, melting because of the salt water. Scientists believe this is not a good sign for the future of our planet since the continuous melting of ice will keep warming our planet and disturbing our sea levels.
12. It Stores More Than 70% Of The Planet’s Fresh Water
Antarctica has 90% of the world’s ice. The area is so big that it stores 70% of the planet’s fresh water, one of the most precious resources in the world. Damn, that’s a lot of water comprised in one spot. It’s so much in fact, that if all the water from Antarctica’s ice sheet were to melt, the oceans would rise about 200ft. Precipitation in the continent is very low, however, and in certain “blue ice” areas, precipitation is lower than ‘mass loss.’ It’s of primal importance to take care of these ice sheets since they’re fundamental in the balance of all the ecosystems around the world. Recently, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has worried scientists, since they believe it has a small but, real, possibility that it can collapse. If that were to happen, ocean levels would rise several feet in a relatively short period of time.
11. There’s A Whole Mountain Range Buried Underneath The Ice
Some people may use ice as a time machine, freezing themselves in order to come back to life in the future when technology is more advanced, but it looks like mountains are doing it better, and on a much bigger scale.
Even though nobody has set eyes on them, Antarctica holds the powerful Gamburtsev Mountains within its ice. It’s one of the planet’s best-kept secrets. These mountains are roughly the size of the European Alps but have been able to keep their youthful state since they’re protected from erosion, thanks to the frozen water that surrounds it. According to recent studies, these 100 million-old mountains are so rugged, they should resemble the Rocky Mountains. They are said to rise 8,850 feet above sea level and would be the highest mountain range in Antarctica if the ice were to melt. So why is it that nobody can search for these Mountains? Well, researchers say the mountains are covered by ice as thick as 10,000 feet and are hidden beneath a place called the Dome A, one of the coldest places on Earth.
10. It’s Home To An Active Volcano Called Erebus
Man, Antarctica is looking pretty awesome just about now. Not only does the continent hold 70% percent of the world’s fresh water and hidden mountains are buried beneath the ice, it’s also home to an active volcano by the name of Erebus.
With an epic name like that, the volcano would have to look pretty awesome, and indeed it is very imposing. Erebus is the second highest volcano in Antarctica, next to the sleeping Mount Sidley. Although it’s the second highest volcano, it is the highest active one, and the southernmost volcano in the world. Mount Erebus is located in a place called Ross Island, sharing the stretch of land with three other volcanoes, Mount Terror, Mount Bird, and Mount Terra Nova.
9. Apart From Researchers, It’s Completely Uninhabited By Humans
Antarctica is pretty harsh, just getting to a safe place where you can be sort of protected from the chilly winds and the freezing temperatures are difficult. That’s one of the reasons why nobody lives in that continent. If you’re adventurous enough, you might think of Antarctica as a possible travel destination, but living there is almost unimaginable. Unlike other continents around the world, there are no native tribes in Antarctica either. It is a place completely uninhabited by humans, although some researchers and scientists do spend a lot of time gathering information over there, even years. During the prime summer season, as many as 4000 researchers settle down in Antarctica, and in the winter months, some 1000 researchers brave its coldest temperatures.
There are also some people who think of Antarctica as a place where they can prove themselves, claiming a lot of exploring titles in the southernmost continent. In 1911, Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to ever reach the South Pole. In 2011, British meteorologist Felicity Aston was the first to ski across the continent using only human muscle. Most recently, in 2017, explorer Mike Horn became the first person to ever do a solo unsupported crossing of Antarctica, during his Pole to Pole circumnavigation quest.
8. The First Child Was Born On The Continent In 1978
It must be cool to be the first documented person ever to be born in a whole continent. Well, such is the case of Emilio Marcos Palma. He was born in 1978 at Esperanza Base in Antarctica. Esperanza Base is an all-year round Argentine research station, where his father was the head of the Argentine army department over there. While seven months pregnant, Emilio’s mother was airlifted to the Esperanza Base to give birth to Emilio.
It’s silly to think that this was part of an international argument over Antarctic land. However, this was the solution the Argentine government had for sovereign disputes they had been having over territories in Antarctica. When Emilio was born, he was immediately granted Argentine citizenship. Since then, Emilio holds the Guinness World Record as the first person ever known to be born in Antarctica, and even though 10 more people have been born there after Emilio, his birth is still considered as the southernmost in history.
7. It’s Completely Dark During The Winter Months
Sometimes, we take the fact that we can see the sun every day for granted, allowing us to not freeze to death in total darkness. We’re able to go outside during the day when it’s the warmest and get back home when night comes to cozy ourselves up in our beds. That is not the case in Antarctica.
Since the Antarctic continent is so far from the Equator, during the winter months the sun disappears, due to the Earth’s tilt. When the night lasts for more than 24 hours, it is known as the polar night. Still, it is only complete darkness in the most southern places, in other places inside the polar circle, you may experience another phenomenon called polar twilight. The same thing happens in the Arctic, researchers estimate that every year there are about 50 polar days and polar nights. Whenever it’s daytime in the Arctic, it’s nighttime in Antarctica.
6. In The Summer, There’s Daylight 24/7
It’s pretty cool to learn that the term midnight sun comes from this natural phenomenon that occurs in the polar regions of the planet. In the summer months in Antarctica, the sun is visible all day long, even when the clock chimes midnight. The same thing happens in the northern hemisphere, and it is a beautiful sight. Since Antarctica has no official population of humans, the countries that are known to experience the midnight sun are all up in the Arctic region. Countries like Canada, Finland, Greenland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden, and even United States’ territories of Alaska.
Since these countries are not yet in the polar regions, most of them witness a permanent sunset for a day or two, giving you a fair chance to snap that perfect picture. It’s incredible that at the poles, the sun rises and sets only once a year. During the six months of summer, the sun circles around you 360 degrees.
5. Enormous Colonies Of Penguins Live In Antarctica
Even though Antarctica has one of the most remorseless climates in the world, it is home to many species of penguins that think of the freezing temperatures and lack of predators there as paradise. Penguins have adapted to the ice and live in huge colonies that can rival cities. There are 7 species of penguins that live in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic regions, including the Zavodovski Island, home of the largest single colony of penguins in the world.
Penguins mate for life and live with the constant struggle of having to bring food to the table. For that, they have specialized bodies that help them save energy when they travel and hunt in the most remote places on Earth. Yeah, you might think the way penguins walk is kinda funny, but for them, it’s a much more efficient way of walking than the static way we do it. They also slide whenever they can in order to cover more distance, and it’s super cute.
4. It Is The Least Diverse Habitat On Earth
Due to the high dryness and the low temperatures found in Antarctica, it’s no surprise that there aren’t many species of plants and animals that like to live there. The place is home to extremophiles, they like to live on the edge.
In Antarctica, you can find many species of seals, penguins, and other animals that concentrate mostly on the coast. More than half of the world’s seal population is said to live on the ice. However, neither of these animals are the most abundant animal on the continent. That trophy goes to the tiny nematode worm. Apart from them, there are also many whales that live around the continent, most of them are migratory, though, and leave during the winter months.
There are no trees in the whole continent, most of the plant diversity can be found on the western edge of the Peninsula, and mainly consists of lichen and moss. Some human activities have introduced new species, though, and a few of them have found success in their new habitat.
3. One Of The Apex Predators Of Antarctica Is The Leopard Seal
Unlike other cute seals, the leopard seal looks ferocious, and they can grow up to be pretty large. Females are a bigger than most males, averaging between 7.9 and 11.5 feet, making them the second largest seal species. It lives in the water surrounding Antarctica, but some visit the sub-Antarctic islands and other southern parts of the world while they’re young, mostly during the austral winter.
As you may have seen in the movie Happy Feet, leopard seals are one of the most vicious predators in Antarctica. They are known to be the penguin’s worst enemy since they are the main diet of an adult leopard seal. Some leopard seals eat other seals, too, but not frequently. Researchers have long feared these animals, assuming they would have an aggressive attitude towards humans. Photographer Paul Nicklen disproved this theory when he witnessed in a once in a lifetime experience as a leopard seal mom tried to feed him dead penguins while he took photos of the animal, thinking that Paul was in distress underwater.
2. Killer Whales Roam The Coastlines
Okay, so leopard seals may be feisty and everything, but they’re still no match for the apex predator of the sea, the orca. Killer whales live with their families most of their lives, in pods with different hunting skillsets depending on where they live. Some orca pods have more than 40 individuals. These beautiful animals can be found in every ocean in the world, and are known to be the apex predator wherever they go.
Killer whales have different languages, diet, and behaviors depending on their habitat. In the Antarctic waters, orcas group up with their pods and use different strategies to hunt seals and penguins. Some pods have been recorded isolating seals in small ice caps and making them fall to the water by generating waves with their tails. They coordinate their attacks by continuous calls and clicks, although they’re mostly silent when it’s time to strike. They also use the breaking ice to journey further inland and reach prey that was previously unavailable to them. Although they’re at the top of their food chain, no killer whale has ever been reported to have killed or hurt a human in the wild
1. The Whole Continent Is Retreating
Most of the glaciers in Antarctica appear to be in retreat. In 2000, the largest iceberg ever recorded broke away from the Ross Ice Shelf, and it was roughly the size of Connecticut. As cool as Antarctica may be, we must take care of our planet in order to keep learning and being amazed by it. In 2016, the fastest glacier retreating ever recorded was documented in West Antarctica. As they retreat, they melt and disappear in the surrounding water. Glaciers have had an unprecedented melting rate, which could possibly endanger many ecosystems around the world. Many researchers go to Antarctica so they can study the effects we have on the continent. Another example of this is the great loss of sections of the Larsen Ice Shelf.
Since 1957, Antarctica has had an increase in temperature of about 0.5 degrees Celsius every decade, mostly caused by human activity around the world. This is the main reason these ice caps have melted and are continuing to do so today. In order to keep appreciating these natural wonders, we must take very good care of them.