Antarctica is one of the most fascinating places on Earth. It is the only continent on our planet no human lives on permanently, except for the scientists and researches that come to explore it, and is made up of 99% ice. With it being pretty much entirely within the Antarctic Circle, temperatures are beyond freezing and are consistently below zero most of the year.
What lies beneath Antarctica’s ice is even more intriguing. Under this continents, thick ice is hundreds of lakes, life and it is also home to a huge canyon system that is as deep as the Grand Canyon but longer. Antarctica’s deep and mysterious waters are home to the world’s sixth-largest lake by volume, Lake Vostok, however, it lies beneath 3.5 km of ice and is not that simple to visit. Research expeditions also discovered signs of microbial life living in the bleak and severe environment of these lakes. This discovery of how life can flourish in these harsh conditions will continue to open up more theories about what else could be living in these freezing depths.
Antarctica is truly one of our planet’s greatest wonders and there are still plenty of things yet to be discovered on the continent. It is a strange place, to say the least, and we’ve listed 25 things about Antarctica that you probably never knew before, besides it being so cold and made up of ice.
We all know that Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth, but how cold can it really get? According to National Geographic, a team of scientists recorded temperature on the ice sheet deep in the middle of Antarctica during the long and dark winter and recorded a temperature of -144 degree Fahrenheit. "It's a place where Earth is so close to its limit, it's almost like another planet," researcher Ted Scambos reported. The temperatures are extremely cold, but during certain seasons they can be tolerable. In Antarctica, the average annual temperature ranges from -76 degrees Fahrenheit at the most elevated parts to the interior to 14 degrees along the coast.
Antarctica is not only viciously cold, but it is extremely windy. Its geography and climate create a special kind of wind called katabatics. These winds form when air moves down a slope, and with the continents mountain range paired against flat, expanses make for a dangerous wind combination, reports Hurtigruten. It is at the steep edge of the continent that the strong katabatic winds form as cold air rushes over the land mass, according to the South Pole Neutrino Observatory. The highest wind speeds ever recorded were at Dumont d'Urville station in July 1972 where wind speeds were a whopping 199 mph.
Antarctica was actually discovered by accident. No one knew that this large area of ice and snow existed until it was first spotted in 1820. It wasn't until 20 years later that Antarctica was confirmed a continent and not just a group of islands. On January 19, 1840, Charles Wilkes who commanded the United States Exploring Expedition discovered the continent. According to National Geographic, a fleet of six American ships left from Virginia, making its way down the coast of South America, into the Pacific Ocean, before spotting Antarctica. While heading south from Sydney, Australia, Wilkes saw a wall of ice and the expedition charted more than 1,500 miles of the coastline.
There are 17 species of penguins in the world, but only seven can actually be found on Antarctica. According to Live Science, penguins live up to 80% of their lives in the ocean. While all penguins live on the Southern Hemisphere, its a common myth that they only live in Antarctica. In fact, penguins can be found on every continent on the Southern Hemisphere, which includes Antarctica and Australia. It is also a myth that penguins only live in cold climates. The Galapagos penguin lives on tropical islands that are close to the equator. According to an article titled "Meet the Penguins of Antarctica," three of the seven species only live in the continent for part of the year, while the other four species spend their entire lives on Antarctica.
In 2013, rock band Metallica became the first band ever to play on every continent on earth. According to Rolling Stone, the band played for 120 people, including scientists from around the world, as well as winners of a contest sponsored by Coca-Cola Zero for fans in Latin America. The show, properly called "Freeze 'Em All" was played near the heliport of the Argentine Antarctic Base Carlini. Because Antarctica is such a fragile place, Metallica played their entire show with no amplification and instead, the sound was transmitted to the audience through headphones.
Hard to believe that any fire would start in a land of snow and ice, there is indeed an Antarctic Fire Department based at McMurdo Station. The fire station is the only full-time professional fire department in Antarctica and the best equipped. While you won't find wildfires in the frigid continent, "fire is one of the greatest threats in Antarctica, a very dry climate, frequent strong winds and a lack of liquid water with which to tackle any fires along with isolation and no possibility of rescue for weeks or months make a fire a potentially more [significant] event than anywhere else in the world," reports Cool Antarctica.
According to reports from NASA, Antarctica has been losing ice mass since at least 2002. While there has been a back and forth debate on whether or not Antarctica's ice sheet is melting, gravity data collected from space show that the continent has been losing more than a hundred cubic kilometers of ice each year since 2002. According to an article on Antarctica from NBC News, over the last 25 years, the Antarctic ice sheet has lost about 3 trillion tons of ice, which is actually a small fraction of the total ice sheet, about 0.01%, however, that small change is enough to raise global sea levels by a measurable amount. We must curb carbon emissions to avoid any serious scenarios like rising sea levels, which are a big threat to our Earth.
While there were several expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole, it was Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen who first explored the area and reached the South Pole. Amundsen and his small expedition reached the South Pole on December 14, 1911, traveling by dog sled. He was the first person to reach both the North and South Poles and was also the first person to sail around the world through Northeast and Northwest passages, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Amundsen actually beat out English explorer Robert Falcon Scott and planted the Norwegian flag. Scott had led two expeditions to the South Pole, but died on the second trip, along with his crew. His was the second expedition to reach the South Pole, reports Enchanted Learning.
The world's largest ice shelves are in Antarctica and they surround 75% of the continent's coastline. The largest of them all is the Ross Ice Shelf, a floating shelf of ice that extends off Antarctica's main landmass and encompasses more than 197,000 square miles, which makes it about the size of France. According to Natural Wonders of the World, the Ross Ice Shelf is several hundred meters thick and the "nearly vertical ice front to the open sea is more than 370 miles long, and between 50 and 160 feet high about the water surface." However, ninety percent of the floating ice is below the surface.
Another remarkable fact about Antarctica is that there are over 400 known subglacial lakes. Hidden under Antarctica's ice sheets is the largest lake is known as Lake Vostok, a freshwater lake buried under 2.5 miles of frozen water. According to "15 Interesting Facts About Antarctica," Lake Vostok is about the size of Lake Ontario and this lake, among the other hundreds that have been discovered beneath the ice is "teeming with microscopic life." Discovering these life forms mean that scientists can use water samples to learn about how these creatures can survive in such a tough environment.
Another amazing fact about Antarctica is the possibility that it contains a trench deeper than the Grand Canyon, which has always been known as the planet's biggest natural rift. Still unnamed, scientists have found another trench on the continent during a 2010 expedition that extends 62 miles, is more than six miles wide, and reaches nearly 1.5 times deeper than the Grand Canyon. Scientists believe this natural trench could even be larger, however, further exploration is needed. According to National Geographic, scientists aren't sure how the valley was created, except that it was tens of millions of years ago.
Antarctica has tons of ice chunks that have broken from the edges of glaciers. These icebergs can range from the small chunks of ice you put in a drink to huge floating "behemoths that take decades to melt and that you can land a helicopter on," reports Antarctic Glaciers. 90% of the mass of these icebergs is underwater. Small chunks of ice are called "bergy bits," larger ones are called "growlers," and chunks greater than 5 meters across are called "icebergs." In March 2000, an ice chunk broke off of the Ross Ice Shelf that was an astounding 170 miles long and 25 miles wide, making it around the size of Connecticut.
Antarctica has a bunch of extinct volcanoes, however, there are two active volcanoes, one of which is located on Deception Island and one called Mount Erebus on Ross Island. Deception Island is home to a very rare type of volcano, located far beneath Antarctica's ice, the volcano has subglacial eruptions, "which means that all of Deception's activity happens below the surface of the ice." The continent's other active volcano is Mount Erebus, which is the southernmost active volcano on Earth and the sixth-highest ultra mountain on the continent. Mount Erebus is also home to the only known "lava lakes," which have held liquid magma despite the frigid and harsh environment.
Antarctica has an abundance of resources. The continent as a whole contains about 90% of Earth's freshwater ice and about 70% of the total freshwater on our planet. Because there is so much fresh water ice, "it has the potential as a fresh water supply," reports Global Classroom. Some people have even considered towing icebergs from the continent to parts of the world in need of fresh water. Another use for Antarctica's ice is to act as a long term deep freeze storage site for grain and other foods. Besides water and ice, there are also coal deposits found along the coast of Antarctica. It's possible that the coal can be used in some small research stations as a source of heat.
With Antarctica being covered in ice and its frigid temperatures, it is truly amazing that there is actually a lake that never freezes. Deep Lake in East Antarctica is so salty that it never completely freezes, according to "15 Interesting Things About Antarctica." In fact, the salinity of the lake levels is 10 times higher than the ocean, rivaling the Dead Sea, which makes the waters one of the least productive ecosystems in the world. Even if temperatures reach well below the freezing mark, the lake will remain liquid. You'll also find four species of life in this lake, "three of them members of the Archaea, a domain of life that has constantly unsettled existing scientific paradigms," reports Lateral Mag.
The Midnight Sun is one of the most intriguing things that happen on our planet. South of the Antarctic circle, there is a period of months where the sun never sets and summers near the South Pole are always bright, meaning you could sit outside and read a book at midnight if you like. It is quite an amazing phenomena. However, there is also the Polar Night, the opposite of the Midnight Sun, when there is no sunlight throughout the day. "This occurs only in the polar circles as the regions beyond it get some sunlight because of the atmosphere scattering the light across the sky," reports Science ABC. The number of days when the sun is under the horizon is around 179 days.
Antarctica is the best place to go searching for meteorites if you ever find yourself there that is. According to "15 Interesting Facts About Antarctica," the continent has earned a reputation for being the best place to find fallen space rocks. "There are two main characteristics that make Antarctica so great for meteorite enthusiasts: the white expanse and the ice drifts. The monochromatic landscape makes the dark rocks stand out, and the ice drifts tend to drop them all off in the same area." According to Slate.com, in the last 37 years, 20,000 meteorites specimens have been collected in Antarctica.
With no permanent residents in Antarctica, the land is basically untouched, making it a fantastic hotspot for researchers, scientists, and astronomers. There are people all year round, however, with researchers staying in Antarctica in bases, studying the continents life, geography, and temperature. New discoveries seem to be found all the time, one of the most recent coming from scientists who are getting close to figuring out how Antarctica, which was smushed together with landmasses to form Gondwana, lost all of its greenery and forested past. Antarctica has also been a hot spot for astronomers thanks to the clear conditions and near-permanent darkness in winter making it great for stargazing.
Yes, believe it or not, there were people who were born on this continent, ten people to be exact. The first person that was born on this continent was Emilio Marcos Palma on January 7, 1978, to Argentine parents at Esperanza, Hope Bay, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Since then, ten other people were born on the continent, more specifically in West Antarctica. In 1984, Juan Pablo Camacho was born at the Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva Base, becoming the first Chilean born in Antarctica. Then after, a girl named Gisella was born, and in 2001, National Geographic reported that eight children have been born in Esperanza alone.
When people are asked to think about an Antarctic land animal, they instantly think of penguins, however, these flightless birds aren't residents on land and don't spend their entire lives on Antarctica, with all seabirds going north during Antarctica's winter. According to scientist David Barnes, you need a microscope to see the continents permanent land animal. These Antarctic natives consist of - rotifers, tardigrades, and springtails, collembola and mites, all micro-animals and worms that are all somehow able to thrive in these Antarctic conditions all year round. According to Live Science, "evidence is mounting that these weird Antarctic animals are remnants of a bygone age, the only survivors of a vanished world - something once thought nearly impossible."
The South Pole is the southernmost point on Earth and is the precise point of the southern intersection of the Earth's axis and the Earth's surface. According to National Geographic, all directions are north from the Antarctic's the South Pole. Its latitude is 90 degrees south, and all lines of longitude meet there. Theoretically, Antarctica would be located in all time zones, so there isn't an official time zone. With the Earth rotating on a tilted axis as it revolves around the sun, sunlight is experienced in extremes at both the North Pole and the South Pole. National Geographic reports that the South experiences only one sunrise (at the September equinox) and one sunset (at the March equinox) every year.
Antarctica's most extreme desert, the McMurdo Dry Valley is home to a five-story fall that pours out of the Taylor Glacier into Lake Bonney with a waterfall that is shockingly bright red, like blood running from a wound. Blood is not actually running out of the fall, in fact, the true red coloring is due to oxidized iron in brine saltwater, the same process that gives iron a dark red color when it rusts, reports Forbes, adding that when the iron-bearing saltwater comes into contact with oxygen the iron oxidizes and takes on a red coloring, and making the water below a deep red, like blood. Bloodfalls has been a mystery since its discovery in 1911, however, how it got its red hue has finally been solved.
On December 1, 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed after more than a year of secret negotiations by 12 countries whose scientists had been active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year of 1957-58. Today, the total number of nations that have signed the treaty is 53. Some of the provisions of the treat include: Scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available and most importantly, Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only. The treaty's purpose also made sure that the continent did not become "the scene of international discord."
The Antarctic ice sheet covers Over 98% of Antarctica and when we think of the continent we picture it all covered in tons of snow. Believe it or not, Antarctica is also home to the driest place on Earth. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are a row of largely snow-free valleys in Antarctica, located within Victoria Land west of McMurdo Sound. This part of the continent is one of the world's most extreme deserts and this part of the world has intrigued researchers for years. According to Atlas Obscura, the lack of snow is the result of 200 mph katabatic winds sucked down into the valleys by gravity and heating up as they hit the ground, evaporating any moisture.
Antarctica is covered in ice, however, it also holds the record for having the highest mountain ranges, called the Gamburtsev Mountains that stretch 750 miles across the interior of the continent, reports Live Science. The highest peaks are estimated to be around 9,000 feet, one-third of the height of the tallest mountain, Mount Everest. The one thing that makes the Gamburtsev Mountains unique is that they are buried beneath Antarctica's ice and snow, under up to 15,750 feet of ice to be exact. The Gamburtsev Mountain Range is believed to be about the same size as the European Alps. According to National Geographic, the mountain range seems to be part of a rift, "a series of ridges that form where Earth’s tectonic plates separate - that once stretched about 1,800 miles long."
References: news.nationalgeographic.com, hurtigruten.com, atlasobscura.com, livescience.com, antarcticglaciers.org, forbes.com, nbcnews.com, globalclassroom.org