Antarctica is a place of extremes. It is the coldest, highest, driest and windiest continent on Earth. This factsheet gives fascinating details of Antarctica’s geographical statistics – its area, length, height, ice thickness and many others.
Antarctica is a continent capped by an inland ice sheet up to 4.8km thick, containing about 90% of the world’s fresh water. The ice sheet is so heavy that it has pushed the land below sea level in places. Because of the thickness of the ice sheet, Antarctica has the highest average altitude of all of the continents.
The South Pole is 1235km from the closest coastline and is situated high on the polar plateau (height 2800 m). Here it may be as cold as -75°C, but the world record lowest temperature is from an even more remote Antarctic station, Vostok, which logged -89°C.
Antarctica is a cold desert, with snowfall equivalent to only 150mm of water each year. This snow builds up gradually and ice flows towards the coast as huge glaciers. In many places, these extend out over the sea as massive ice shelves.
Only about 0.4% of the surface of Antarctica is free of snow and ice. The tops of mountain chains stick up through the ice – the highest is Mount Vinson, 4900 m above sea level.
The Southern Ocean is a continuous belt of sea surrounding Antarctica. In winter, over half of the Southern Ocean freezes over. Although this seawater ice is only about one metre thick, it has a significant effect on ocean and atmospheric circulation. Nearly all of the sea-ice melts in summer.
Poles apart – whereas Antarctica is an ice-covered continent surrounded by ocean, the Arctic is an ocean covered by thick sea-ice and surrounded by the northern continents.
Britain has played a major role in the exploration and study of Antarctica. Captain James Cook was the first person to circumnavigate the continent in the 1770s. Later expeditions were searching for commercial opportunities, usually hunting for seals or whales. At the start of the twentieth century, Scott and Shackleton undertook purely scientific expeditions, a tradition which continues to the present.
The early Greeks suggested that there was a southern landmass. However, this remained unknown for several centuries, although Terra Incognita Australis – unknown southern land – appears as an immense but quite fanciful continent on a map published in 1531. Even 100 years ago, only small parts of Antarctica had been mapped, and there were several inaccuracies. Only recently have satellite pictures allowed us to build up a complete map of the continent.
There are no native peoples in Antarctica. Eighteen countries operate year-round scientific research stations on the continent and the surrounding islands and during summer (the UK’s winter) as many as 10,000 scientists and support staff work there, but only about 1000 in winter. Tourists also visit Antarctica during the summer to enjoy the spectacular scenery and abundant wildlife – up to around 40,000 visitors each year.
Antarctica is a continent for science. All countries working in Antarctica carry out scientific research in a surprising range of physical and biological sciences – from the vastness of space to the minute scale of micro-organisms. Activities are regulated by the Antarctic Treaty, which has been in force since 1959 and is signed by all countries operating there. The Treaty reserves the continent for peaceful purposes, and all military and industrial activities are banned.
- Antarctica is the coldest, windiest and most remote continent on Earth
- There are no native peoples in Antarctica
- There are no polar bears in Antarctica
- There are about 5 million penguins in Antarctica
- Eighteen countries operate year-round scientific research stations
- During the Antarctic summer as many as 10,000 scientists and support staff work there – but only about 1000 in winter
- Each year around 40,000 tourists visit the icy continent
- Antarctica is a continent for science
- The Antarctic Treaty designates the continent as a ‘natural reserve, devoted to peace and science’
- Captain Cook was the first person to circumnavigate the continent in the 1770s
- Scott and Shackleton undertook purely scientific expeditions – a tradition which continues to the present
- British Antarctic Survey has carried out most of the UK’s Antarctic research for over seventy years
- The discovery of the spring-time Antarctic ozone hole in 1985 changed the world when the Montreal Protocol ban CFCs and halons in 1987
- By 1993 most of the ozone over Antarctica had disappeared
- Scientists expect the ‘hole’ to disappear in about 100 years if the world complies with the Montreal Protocol
- The scale of Antarctic science is immense – from insects and microbes studied under the microscope – to the continent-sized ice sheet best appreciated from satellite imagery
- Antarctic science is crucial for understanding how the Earth operates as a global system
- Antarctica is a significant driver of global climate
- Antarctic marine and lake sediments reveal the regional pattern that is a key to unravelling global changes.
- The continent contains unique ice core records that have unprecedented detail about the causes and results of climate change
- The inland Antarctic ice sheet is up to 4 km thick
- The Antarctic is the ultimate icy wilderness
- Only 0.6% of Antarctica is free of ice
- The ocean surrounding Antarctica provides a virtually impenetrable barrier of sea ice which in winter covers an area around one and half times the area of the continent
- In global terms 90% of the world’s ice is located in the Antarctic
- The purity of Antarctic ice is unmatched anywhere else in the world
- The Antarctic has not always been totally icy
- When dinosaurs roamed and hibernated through the long polar winter there was enough vegetation to sustain them
- Whilst the Antarctic landmass is icy-covered and barren, the surrounding ocean is biologically rich
- Whales seals and sea birds are important parts of the ecosystem