50 Interesting Antarctica Facts to Inspire Your Visit
Antarctica. The 7th continent and part of almost everyone’s bucketlist. Here are fifty of our favourite facts about this enormous frozen land to help entice you into visiting.
1. Antarctica is its own continent
Antarctica is one of the world’s seven continents. It is the fifth-largest, being bigger than the whole of Europe and nearly twice the size of Australia.
2. It is very windy
On average, Antarctica is the windiest of all the continents. Because its landscape is flat over very large distances, winds can reach speeds of up to 320 km/h. On other continents, winds only reach these speeds during storms, cyclones, hurricanes, tornados, etc.
3. It is officially a desert
Antarctica is the driest continent on the planet and is officially classified as a desert. The cold temperatures and strong winds result in very low humidity, which makes it difficult for clouds to form. Along the coastline (especially on the Antarctic Peninsula) rain is possible, but it is still rare.
4. Antarctica holds most of the Earth´s fresh water
Although it is a desert, Antarctica contains 70% of the Earth’s fresh water. However, it is mostly bound up in the enormous ice sheet so you won’t be drinking out of too many running streams there.
5. Home of the South Poles
The current locations of both the Geographic South Pole (where the Earth’s surface intersects the Earth’s axis of rotation) and the Magnetic South Pole (where the direction of the Earth’s magnetic field is vertically upwards) lie within Antarctica. However, this has not always been the case. Millions of years ago, Antarctica used to be closer to the Equator but has now moved to its position at the bottom of the planet due to tectonic motion.
6. (Almost) everywhere is North
If you are standing at the Magnetic South Pole, then everywhere is North of you. The Magnetic South Magnetic Pole currently lies almost 3,000km from the Geographic South Pole and moves at the rate of about 5km/year.
7. The most remote location in Antarctica is not the South Pole
Antarctica is positioned asymmetrically around the South Pole. This means that the South Pole is not always located the same distance from the coastline. The most remote place in Antarctica (the one furthest from all coastlines) is called the South Pole of Inaccessibility and lies about 900km from the Geographic South Pole.
8. Antarctica is the largest ice sheet in the world
More than 98% of Antarctica is covered with ice. This makes it the largest ice sheet in the world, with Greenland coming in second. It is estimated that Antarctica contains around 90% of the world’s ice, and if it all melted, sea levels would rise by around 60 metres.
9. Around 1-2% of Antarctica is permanently ice-free
The driest places on Earth are Antarctica’s Dry Valleys. The air is so dry and the temperatures so cold in these barren and dusty areas, that even snow does not fall.
10. Home of the world´s largest icebergs
In March 2000, the largest iceberg ever measured broke away from Antarctica’s Ross Ice Shelf. Named B-15, it was about 270 km long and 37 km wide – larger than several of the world’s island states. 18 years after it started drifting north into the Atlantic Ocean and breaking apart, four small icebergs out of the original behemoth remained.
11. Home to the southernmost active volcano
Mount Erebus is one of the Earth’s few constantly active volcanoes. It continuously releases gas and has had several eruption episodes over the years resulting in lava flowing down its slopes and ejected molten rock. It is the site of the Earth’s only long-lived lava lakes and is Antarctica’s second-highest mountain.
12. Antarctica has high mountains
Antarctica’s highest mountain, Mount Vinson, stands 4,987 metres tall. This is just over half the height of Mount Everest. It is named for Carl Vinson, a US Congressman who keenly supported Antarctic expeditions, and was summited for the first time in 1966 by a team led by American, Nicholas Clinch.
13. Antarctica has a buried mountain range
The Gamburtsev mountains (also referred to as the Ghost Mountains) stretch for 1,200 km across Antarctica and reach heights of more than 3,000 metres. However, you can’t see them because the thickness of the ice in those regions is more than 4,000m. They are completely buried by snow and ice.
14. Home to one of the longest mountain ranges on Earth
The Transantarctic Mountains run for more than 3,500km, making them one of the longest mountain ranges on the planet. They essentially run from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea and divide Antarctica into East and West, with East Antarctica making up 2/3 of the continent. Their summits are generally ice-free and they are the location of most of Antarctica’s Dry Valleys.
15. Home to some of the world´s biggest canyons
There are several rift systems in Antarctica – both in the east and the west. The West Antarctic Rift System spans an enormous area (it is ~3,000km long and ~700km wide) and contains the Ferrigno Rift, a 1.6km deep canyon that is almost as deep as the Grand Canyon. Scientists think that this canyon is causing this part of Antarctica to lose ice more rapidly than expected.
16. Home to many underground lakes
More than 200 lakes have been discovered under the Antarctic ice sheet. Geothermal heat from the Earth’s interior and insulation from above by the thick layers of ice ensures that they remain liquid. The freshwater Lake Vostok is the largest of these. Buried under about 4km of ice, it is a subglacial lake, meaning it is encased by the ice of a glacier, not rock or earth.
17. It has a blood-red waterfall
Part of the remote Taylor Glacier in East Antarctica, the disturbing red colour of “Blood Falls” was a mystery for more than 100 years. Then, in 2017, scientists discovered that the water (which originates from a subglacial lake) is high in salt and oxidised iron. When the water comes into contact with air, the iron rusts giving it its amazing red colour.
18. It has the saltiest lake on Earth
At the base of the Transantarctic mountains, the Don Juan Pond is the saltiest body of water on Earth. Its salt concentration is 40% compared with ~30% for the Dead Sea and 3.5% for normal seawater. The salt is actually calcium chloride which lowers the freezing point of water even more than sodium chloride (which is what you use for table salt). This, and the high salinity of the lake means it stays liquid even in the frigid temperatures of Antarctica.
19. It is surrounded by a permanent current
The Circumpolar Current is the world’s largest wind-driven current. It circles clockwise around Antarctica (from west to east) and helps to keep the continent cold by blocking the warmer water from more temperate oceans. It is very rich in nutrients which is why there is a lot of marine life near Antarctica.
20. It is one of the best places on Earth to find meteorites
Certainly, it helps that the dark meteorites stand out against the pristine white snow and ice of Antarctica. But the cold, dry atmosphere also helps to preserve them against the usual weathering processes.
21. There are no polar bears in Antarctica
Polar bears are only found in the Arctic, not the Antarctic.
22. There are no sled dogs in Antarctica
Many of the successful early explorers of Antarctica used sled dogs from the Arctic to help on their expeditions. However, in 1994 all dogs were banned from the continent. This was due to the worry that they may spread diseases to the seal population and that they may also disturb the wildlife if they broke free of their restraints.
23. Antarctica has a lot of penguins
While there may not be any polar bears or sled dogs, Antarctica is one of the best places in the world to see penguins. In fact, the penguin is Antarctica’s “national” animal. Of the 17 different species of penguins on the planet, 8 of them inhabit Antarctica. Emperor penguins and Adélie penguins can only be found on the Antarctic continent, while Chinstraps, Macaronis, Gentoos, Rockhoppers, Magallanics, and Kings can also be found in sub-Antarctic locations.
24. Antarctica is a heaven for whales
There are also 8 species of whale that are commonly seen in Antarctic waters. Southern Right, Sei, Humpback, Fin, Antarctic Minke, Sperm, and the enormous Blue whale spend part of every year near Antarctica, as do Orcas (Killer whales).
25. Seals also love Antarctica
The Antarctic waters are also home to 6 different species of seal. Ross, Weddell, crabeater, leopard, fur, and elephant seals are all found here.
26. Antarctica is the only continent without reptiles
If you are scared of snakes, you need not fear a trip to Antarctica. Reptiles rely on external heat sources to help regulate their body temperature – something that is in very short supply in the frigid climate of Antarctica! In other cold climates, snakes hibernate through the winter. But here, the ground is always frozen and they cannot survive.
27. Some Antarctic fishes have a natural antifreeze in their blood
The main family of Antarctic fishes, the notothenioids, generate a natural protein that acts as antifreeze for their blood. This means they can survive at very low temperatures – something that is critical to the entire Antarctic ecosystem as they are a key food source for many of the polar whales, seals and birds.
28. Worms are the most common land animal
When we think of animals inhabiting the Antarctic continent, our minds immediately picture penguins. However, the most abundant land animal in Antarctica is actually the tiny nematode worm. These creatures are only a few millimetres long at their largest and employ several neat strategies for surviving in the extremely harsh climate.
29. You can experience the Midnight Sun in Antarctica
Almost all of Antarctica lies south of the Antarctic Circle. This means that during the summer, the Sun never sets below the horizon, no matter where you are on the continent. Long, “balmy” days indeed!
30. You can experience Polar Darkness in Antarctica
For the same reason, during the winter months, you won’t see the Sun at all from wherever you are in Antarctica. And it’s not because it is cloudy. It’s because the Sun never rises above the horizon.
31. You can see the Southern Lights (Aurora Australis)
The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) are more famous, but that is mostly because they are more easily visible from the many landmasses that lie within their viewing zone. As a general guide, the Aurora Australis is usually only seen from Antarctica and the few islands that lie within the Southern Ocean. It is only if the solar activity is particularly strong that they are seen from Australia, New Zealand, and South America.
32. You can see diamond dust
It isn’t real dust from diamonds, but rather tiny, elongated ice crystals that sparkle under light from the Sun. Temperatures must be very cold to see them close to the ground (ie Antarctica and the Arctic), but they are also responsible for halos and sun-dogs.
33. You can do the “Polar Plunge”
How brave are you? Brave enough to dive into Antarctic waters? Many travellers to Antarctica (and the Arctic) choose to experience this intense cold almost as a right of passage on their trip. You literally dive in and then get immediately back out and into somewhere/something warm. We don’t want any hypothermia!
34. It is the land of grand adventure
Ever since it was first discovered, Antarctica has had a magnetic pull for adventurers. We most readily think of the heroic explorers, with Scott, Shackleton, and Amundsen being the most famous. But every year, there are a number of modern-day adventurers and extreme athletes willing to pit themselves against the worst of the Earth’s elements – now aided by modern technologies of course.
35. It was only discovered in the 19th Century
Although Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle and came within 80km of Antarctica in 1773, he never sighted land. That honour went to the crew of two Russian ships – Vostok and Mirnyi – under the command of Captain Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen in 1820. This is recorded as the official discovery of Antarctica.
36. There are two settlements
Esperanza Base (Argentina) and Villa Las Estrellas (Chile) formed around two of the permanent research stations on the continent. Nobody stays here continuously throughout the year and each has a rotating population of less than 100 people.
37. There is only one ATM in all of Antarctica
It’s a good thing there’s not much to buy in Antarctica! A single ATM is located at McMurdo Station – the largest research station in Antarctica – that sees up to 1000 guests during the summer months.
38. You can go to church in Antarctica
Even in the world’s harshest climate, there is still time for religion. There are 8 churches scattered around the various research stations of Antarctica. All of them are Christian churches and half are Catholic.
39. It is occupied all year round but there are no permanent human inhabitants
Researchers come and go throughout the year meaning that Antarctica is always inhabited by humans. However, there are no permanent residents. The number of researchers on site is around 1,000 during winter and can climb as high as 4,000 during the summer months.
40. You can´t get to Antarctica during winter
Bad weather, limited infrastructure, and no Sun makes it impossible to get to Antarctica during the winter. Instead, scientists “winter-over” in Antarctica and cannot leave for several months.
41. Tourism is highly regulated
In 1991, the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) was founded to protect and preserve Antarctica while still advocating for environmentally-friendly, non-scientific travel to the continent. Most companies that operate tours to Antarctica are members of IAATO (you should not travel with one that is not), and diligently adhere to rules around biosecurity, controlled schedules, and maximum numbers of guests landed at any one time.
42. Antarctica has no official time zone
Since there is no permanent population or government in Antarctica, there is no need for an official time zone. Instead, scientists and others at the scientific bases use the time zone of the country that operates the base.
43. You can complete a marathon in Antarctica
The first Antarctic Marathon was held in 1995 and has been run in February or March of each year since. It starts at Bellingshausen Station on King George Island and its 42km route takes in the Artigas, Frei, and Great Wall Bases.
Climate and Science
44. Antarctica had a tropical climate in the past
In fact, for most of the past 100 million years, Antarctica was balmy indeed! Fossil records show that Antarctica was once abundant in plant and animal life and it has only been the last ~30 million years that it has been covered in ice.
45. Antarctica holds the record for the lowest temperature on Earth
Minus 93.2° Celsius. Now that’s cold! This lowest-ever temperature was recorded by a satellite monitoring the East Antarctic Plateau on August 10, 2010. The lowest temperature ever recorded with a thermometer was -89.2° Celsius at Vostok station.
46. Its ice shelves are collapsing in alarming ways
Since the 1990s, several of Antarctica’s ice shelves (floating sheets of ice connected to land) have collapsed suddenly and dramatically, rather than retreating in the more usual sedate manner. The most spectacular to date has been Larsen B which collapsed over a period of about one month in 2002 after surviving for more than 10,000 years.
47. Its glaciers are in retreat
It is estimated that 87% of the glaciers around the Antarctic Peninsula are retreating, and many are thinning and accelerating. None of this is good news and it is partially as a result of the collapse of the ice shelves.
48. It is classified as a scientific preserve
The entire area below 60 degrees south is protected by the Antarctic Treaty as a scientific preserve. This treaty was implemented in 1961 by 12 nations, but now more than 50 countries are signatories. It precludes military activity, does not recognise sovereign claims, and encourages scientific cooperation.
49. Antarctica is a scientific hub
The pristine nature of Antarctica and its unique position on the planet draws scientists from around the world. Astronomy, atmospheric sciences, biology, earth science, environmental science, geology, glaciology, marine biology, oceanography, and geophysics experiments have all been conducted there to study either the Antarctic environment specifically, or when Antarctica provides the best conditions for the research.
50. There are many scientific research stations in Antarctica
It’s, therefore, no surprise that Antarctica is home to more than 70 research stations. You need a base from which to carry out your experiments, after all. These are operated by more than 25 countries from around the world.