Antarctica is designated as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science” (Environmental Protocol 1991). Continental Antarctica is big, but the majority of the land is covered in ice. The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million km² (6.5 million square miles) and contains 30 million km³ of ice. Around 90 per cent of the fresh water on the Earth’s surface is held in the ice sheet, an amount equivalent to 70m of water in the world’s oceans. In East Antarctica the ice sheet rests on a major land mass, but in West Antarctica the bed is in places more than 2500m below sea level. It would be seabed if the ice sheet were not there.
A small area (less than one percent) is free of ice and the continent contains some of the most spectacular mountain ranges anywhere in the World. The most extensive are the Antarctic Peninsula, 1700km, and the Transantarctic Mountains, 3000km. The highest mountain, Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains, peaks at 4897m.
Around the coasts of Antarctica, temperatures are generally close to freezing in the summer (December–February) months, or even slightly positive in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula. During winter, monthly mean temperatures at coastal stations are between −10°C and −30°C but temperatures may briefly rise towards freezing when winter storms bring warm air towards the Antarctic coast. Conditions on the interior plateau are much colder as a result of its higher elevation, higher latitude and greater distance from the ocean. Here, summer temperatures struggle to get above −20°C and monthly mean temperatures fall below −60°C in winter. Vostok Station, a high plateau research station, holds the record for the lowest ever temperature recorded at the surface of the Earth (−89.2°C). In August 2010, a NASA satellite recorded an Antarctic temperature of −94.7°C (−135.8°F).
The majority of the biodivesity found in the Antarctic is in the marine environment not on the continent. In the oceans, you will find whales, fish, seals, squid, krill and a whole range of bottom-dwelling marine organisms. Many micro-organisms also inhabit the marine environment around Antarctica and marine sea birds including penguin, albatross, petrels and skuas can be found around the Antarctic and the sub-Antarctic Islands.
On the continent, terrestrial invertebrates are the most species-rich animal group in Antarctica and on the Southern Ocean islands. Nematode worms, water bears (tardigrades), wheel-animals (rotifers), spingtails and mites are the most common.
Humans are a relative late-comers to the Antarctic region. Exploration of the area likely began in the 1700s. Now, the only humans that go there are either tourists, fisheries people or are personnel that are part of National Antarctic Programs.
The National Antarctic Programs operate a range of facilities in Antarctica in support of scientific research there. View the current list of Antarctic facilities here as a PDF file: Antarctic_Facilities_List_27July16.pdf
For more information on Antarctica see the various websites of our Member National Antarctic Programs.
Find other information on aspects of Antarctica at the following websites:
The Antarctic Treaty Secretariat www.ats.aq
The Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) www.scar.org
The Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources Secretariat www.ccamlr.org