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Some Background on Antarctica

Take a journey to Antarctica—without having to prepare yourself physically for the journey! In the next couple of pages, you can learn some important facts about this very important continent.

AMAZING ANTARCTIC FACTS

  • Antarctica contains 70% of Earth's freshwater and 90% of its ice.
  • If melted, the ice sheets covering Antarctica would raise global sea level by almost 70 meters.
  • The thin layer of sea ice that forms around Antarctica each winter helps create the densest water mass in the ocean. This water mass drives circulation in all of the world's oceans.
  • Krill, the cornerstone of the Antarctic food web, make up the greatest single component of biomass in the ocean. They support a tremendous diversity of life in the southern ocean—and serve as a food source for human populations.
  • The cold Antarctic environment drives atmospheric circulation in the Southern Hemisphere, and hence across the globe.

A VERY COLD, DRY PLACE AT A VERY HIGH ALTITUDE

In the long, dark winter, temperatures at the South Pole hover around –58ºC (-73ºF). Even in the summer, temperatures of –26ºC (-16ºF) can lead to frostbite and hypothermia. Winds blow up unexpectedly and ferociously, causing blizzards, reducing visibility, and creating stormy seas.

The broad polar plateau sits 4,000 meters (13,000 feet) above sea level, resulting in altitude sickness for many of the people working at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station and remote field sites.

The continental interior receives about as much precipitation as the Sahara; the dryness must be combated by constantly replenishing fluids, and buckets of protective skin lotion. The diminished ozone layer and long day length mean protective clothing and eye wear are a necessity at all times.

WHY ON EARTH WOULD ANYONE GO THERE?

Despite these crazy conditions, approximately 3,500 people go there every year to work in this coldest, driest, windiest, highest place on Earth, and the number of people applying to do research in Antarctica increases every year.

Research scientists, electricians, computer technicians, cooks, carpenters, paramedics, communications specialists, and firemen—to name a few—go to this remote place. Their work scatters them across the continent in permanent stations and remote field camps, takes them offshore on research ships, and carries them into the cold waters in protective dry suits. The researchers have backgrounds in a wide variety of fields—physics, meteorology, biology, glaciology, field safety, chemistry, to name a few. Their work is helping us to understand the mysterious continent, the workings of the entire globe, and even other planets!

WHAT KINDS OF QUESTIONS CAN BE ANSWERED IN ANTARCTICA?

Our questions about Antarctica have changed through time, as our own scientific knowledge expanded with our ability to conduct research in such an extreme environment.

The earliest explorers began with such basic questions as, "Is there a land mass or ocean at the South Pole?" As our knowledge of Antarctica increased, new, more complex questions emerged. "Is there a continent under the ice sheet?" "What is the topography under the ice sheet?" "How thick is the ice sheet?" "How fast does the ice sheet change?" "What causes advances and retreats in the ice sheet?"

Paralleling the questions and discoveries, though perhaps not fast enough for scientists, are developments in technology. Satellite images and the development of the Global Positioning System have allowed scientists to accurately map the ice sheet and changes in the environment.

Antarctica's unique features, moreover, allow scientists to conduct research that cannot be pursued anywhere else on Earth. Here are some of the questions scientists are posing—and answering—in Antarctica.

  • How—and how fast—has climate changed in the past? Can we predict what may happen in the future?
  • When did the universe form and what events occurred during its formation?
  • What design works best for remote vehicles operated on Mars?
  • How can life exist in Antarctica's extreme environment? Might life exist in similar extreme environments on other planets?
  • Is the depletion of the ozone layer increasing? How fast? What does this mean for the environment, both locally and globally?
  • How do organisms adapt, biologically and chemically, to endure the harsh conditions of Antarctica?
  • How are energy efficient, low cost, high durability living, and working structures best designed in extreme environments?
  • How do humans adapt to prolonged living in extreme environments?
  • How is the Antarctic environment responding to climate change today?

Questions continue to emerge as we begin to understand the complexities of Antarctica and its connections to our global system. In this course of study, there is only one guarantee: the answers scientists propose today create a path for the questions of tomorrow.

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