card
319

Antarctica

OLogy Series
place
card
319

Antarctica

OLogy Series
place

Antarctica is like no other place on Earth. The continent is covered almost entirely by a thick ice sheet. Yet there is very little precipitation. Howling winds reach over 320 km p/hr (200 mph) and temperatures dip to -60 C (-76 F)! Even the sea freezes over in the winter. Very few kinds of land animals and plants can survive here. But the icy waters are filled with life. The only humans are those that have come to explore and study.

Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration
Almost nothing was known about Antarctica until the 1700s and 1800s, when a few explorers, whalers, and seal hunters glimpsed parts of the continent.In the mid-1800s, the first expeditions began to explore the ice-covered land. Some were in search of valuable seal fur. Others were looking to build empires. Others were driven simply by curiosity about this mysterious world. Exploration became a symbol of national pride. The late 1800s marked the start of the "Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration." In just 25 years, 18 expeditions were launched to explore the continent's geography, reach the South Pole, map the coastline, and collect scientific data on everything from weather to rocks to animals. Two famous explorers were Roald Amundsen from Norway and Robert Falcon Scott from England, who raced each other to the South Pole in 1910. In another famous expedition in 1914, the British explorer Ernest Shackelton set out to cross the continent. But his ship was crushed by ice before it reached land. Shackleton sailed for hundreds of miles in a small open boat to get help and save his men.

Continent of Science
Over the past century, scientists and explorers made expeditions to Antarctica to investigate this unique environment.

In 1959, 12 nations signed an agreement that the continent would be devoted to "peace and science." Today, 48 nations have agreed to this treaty. Scientists from around the world--and in many fields--research here.

Paleontologists have discovered fossils that reveal clues about what the continents looked like in the past. Biologists study how organisms have adapted to life in the harsh environment. The study of these organisms have uncovered mysteries about the history of life. Even astronomers study here. The dry, unpolluted atmosphere and high altitude make Antarctica an excellent place to observe space. And the blue-white color of the ice make it ideal for spotting meteorites. In fact, scientists have found the most different types of meteorites in Antarctica, including some from the Moon and Mars!

The ice sheet covering Antarctica is a blanket of ice about 2 km (1.2 mi) thick. It was formed by millions of years of snowfall. Buried under it:

are mountains and deep valleys

are many lakes

all of these

Are you right?

Correct!

These features were detected by satellite and plane-borne radar that penetrates the ice. The mountains and valleys have been compared to the European Alps. The largest lake under the ice, Lake Vostok, is as big as America's Great Lakes--about the size of Lake Ontario.

Scientists have found fossils of ancient reptiles, mammals, and trees in Antarctica. These fossils provide evidence that:

these species could survive the freezing, dry conditions of Antarctica

the continent was once much warmer

these species floated across the ocean to Antarctica

Are you right?

Correct!

Millions of years ago, the continent had forests and plains alive with plants and animals. Fossils also show it was part of a huge supercontinent. About 34 million years ago, Antarctica separated from South America and all other landmasses. And its climate had begun to cool.

Some species of fish in the Antarctic waters have molecules in their blood that work like "antifreeze" to keep their blood from freezing.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

Every Antarctic species has adaptations that allow them to survive under its harsh conditions. Other species include penguins, seals, seabirds, and hardy tundra-like plants.

Today, only scientists can visit Antarctica.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fiction

Antarctica is also the destination for teachers, artists, electricians, carpenters, cooks, and more. About 4,000 stay during the austral summer, and 1,000 during the austral winter.

In much of Antarctica, the Sun never rises during the winter.

Fact
or
Fiction
?

Fact

Because of the tilt of Earth's axis, Antarctica faces away from the Sun during winter. The long, dark winter lasts from March to Septem- ber. In the summer, the Sun never sets.

Description: Earth's southernmost continent
Landforms: high plateaus, active volcanoes, mountains, valleys, under-ice lakes
Size: 14 million sq km (5.5 million sq mi); about the size of the U.S. and Mexico combined
Cool Fact: Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and driest place on Earth.
Cool Fact: The ice sheet that covers Antarctica holds 70 percent of the world's freshwater.

Image credits: courtesy of AMNH.