Antarctica is frozen in time and deeply inhospitable to life. But what would the frozen continent look like if it lost all its ice? That is an interesting and complicated question. Antarctica is much more than sheets of ice. Underneath it is a landscape of mountains, hills, and rolling plains, dissected by valleys troughs, and deep gorges.

Antarctica is the world's remotest and most difficult continent to visit. But while it is more difficult, one can visit all the way to the South Pole. There are even a number of accommodation options in Antarctica for visitors and surprisingly these range from roughing it, to comparative luxury.


Antarctica Has Two Ice Sheets And Has Two Major Parts


Today Antarctica is a frigid continent entombed (and depressed) with ice. The frozen continent is covered in two major and geologically distinct parts bridged by a vast ice sheet. These are called East Antarctica and West Antarctica.

East Antarctica: 

East Antarctica is the larger of the two halves and is around the size of the United States. It is made up of continental crust and is covered by a massive ice sheet averaging around 1.6 miles in thickness.

  • Larger: East Antarctica Is By Far The Larger Half

West Antarctica:

West Antarctica is the smaller part of the continent and is made up of a mosaic of small blocks of continental crust covered by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and an Andean-like mountain chain forming the Antarctic Peninsula.

  • Antarctic Peninsula: The Antarctic Peninsula is Part of West Antarctica

While maps show the western part of the continent above sea level - that is only because of the massive sheet of ice on it. Most of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is grounded below sea level - in places, it's over 1.5 miles below sea level.

So if the ice was to melt, much of this side of the continent would be below sea level and would be a patchwork of islands.

Related: How To Visit The Eerie, Mysterious, And Abandoned Viking Ruins In Greenland

The Sheer Amount of Ice Entombing Antarctica


There are two massive ice sheets covering Antarctica. They cover the vast majority of the landmass with only 2.4% of it free of ice (called Antarctic Oasis). They cover an area of around 14 million square kilometers.

  • Ice Cover: 97.6% of The Continent
  • Ice-Free: 2.4% of The Continent

It's difficult to comprehend just how thick the ice sheets are. They average 2,160 meters thick and have a maximum depth of 4,776. To put that in context, Mount Mitchell (the highest peak in the Appalachians) is only 2,037 meters high above sea level. While Mount Elbert is the highest mountain in the Rockies at 4,401 meters.

  • Thickness: The Maximum Thickness Is Greater Than The Height Of The Highest Mountain Of The Rockies

That made Antarctica the highest continent in the world by far. This ice accounts for over 90% of the world's ice and 70% of all the world's freshwater.

What Antarctica Looks Like Without Its Ice

NASA has compiled a map of what Antarctica would look like without ice. It was based on data compiled by scientists at the British Antarctic Survey over the last two decades. It uses surface elevation reading and ice thickness data that were measured with ice-penetrating radar.

The map is called Bedmap2 and uses 15 million more measurements since the old map from 2001. It revealed that Antarctica's average bedrock depth, deepest point, and ice thickness were all greater than previously thought.

  • Bedmap2: The NASA Map Showing Antarctica Without Ice

Antarctica even has volcanoes beneath the ice. These are known as "subglacial volcanoes" and by the term "glaciovolcanism." More and more volcanoes are being learned about under Antarctica. Previously 47 were known but in 2017 it was announced that another 91 new volcanoes had been identified. So far 138 volcanoes have been identified in West Antarctica alone.

Related: What Travelers Should Be Prepared For When Visiting The Remote Country Of Greenland

But Its More Complicated

When considering how much of Antarctica would be above sea level if ice were to go there are a number of things to consider. One is a hypothetical question of what if the ice sheet was just taken off and jettisoned into space or something. Another consideration is if the ice melted (and so stayed on earth and raised the sea levels). That scenario would also mean that many coastlines around the world would change (Florida e.g. would be gone).

  • Rising Sea Levels: If Antarctica's Ice Melted Sea Levels Would Rise By 216 feet or 65 Meters

Another question is a matter of timing. There would be more and more Antarctic land poking above sea level over time due to post-glacial rebound - like as is happening in Canada (especially around the Hudson Bay) and Finland.

  • Post-Glacial Rebound: The Continent Would Slowly Rise Back Up After Being Compressed By the Weight Of The Island

Next: How Much Of Florida Is Left If All Ice Melts?