Exploration of Extremes in Antarctica

Angela Dansby

Our southernmost continent is aptly named for being opposite (“ant”) of the Arctic Circle. That’s polar opposite to be exact (badum bum). There you must take care as Antarctica leaves you high and dry, literally. It is the highest, driest, windiest, iciest and coldest continent on earth – a land of superlatives and extremes. This polar desert is also the least populated and most endangered continent.

Antarctica

Unlike Australia, which is both a continent and a country, Antarctica is just a continent, not a country. That’s because it does not have sovereignty, a government, a political system, an army or a permanent population. Legally, it is a de facto condominium, which is a political territory where several sovereign states share and divide power equally. This continental “condo” includes 54 country signatories (governed by 29 with consulting status) of the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica is a model of international cooperation. Per the treaty, it is dedicated to peace and science.

Now for the superlatives …

Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all continents. Most of it is higher than 3,000 meters (9,900 feet) above sea level. To put this altitude into perspective, the average elevation of earth’s landmass is only 840 meters (2,760 feet).

Antarctica is the driest continent, officially classified as a polar desert because it gets very little precipitation. That’s because it’s too cold to rain! In its driest spot, known as McMurdo Dry Valleys, there is even a large sand dune. This area is the driest place on earth with low humidity and almost no snow or ice.

Antarctica

Antarctica is the windiest place on earth. Wind speeds of more than 350 kilometers (218 miles) per hour have been recorded there!

Ninety-nine percent of Antarctica is covered by ice, making it by far the iciest continent. It has an ice sheet covering 14 million square kilometers (5.4 million square miles) – the single largest on earth that’s nearly twice the size of Australia and 1.5 times the United States. This accounts for more than 90 percent of the world’s ice and fresh water. The average thickness of Antarctic ice is about 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) and at its deepest, 4.5 kilometers (2.7 miles). If it all melted, global sea levels would rise about 60 meters (200 feet)!

Finally, it’s no surprise that the home to the South Pole is the coldest continent. Its average annual temperatures range from −57 °C (−71 °F) at the highest parts of the interior to −10 °C (14 °F) on the coast. The coldest air temperature ever measured there and on earth was -89 °C (-129 °F). The air is so cold on Antarctica that water vapor can condense and form tiny ice crystals. When sunlight glints off the crystals, it creates a phenomenon called diamond dust. Imagine a million tiny floating diamonds that can also create brilliant optics like sun dogs, halos and light pillars.

Given these climatic extremes, Antarctica is of course the least populated continent. Because it isn’t a country, you can’t become a citizen or get an Antarctic passport. Note it is populated but uninhabited; it has no permanent residents or indigenous people, only transient researchers (around 1,000 in winter and 4,000 in summer) who last at best a year. Those overwintering must undergo psychological fitness tests to ensure they can handle confinement in relatively small spaces for months on end.

Not even wildlife hangs around during the fierce winter there. The admirable exception are male emperor penguins which nest on a single egg laid by their mates who go on holiday for 9 weeks until hatching time. Penguins actually rule the continent, far outnumbering people at 5 million strong almost yearlong! Talk about “March of the Penguins” and wow, are they stinky with their ammonia poo (at least it promotes biodiversity.) FYI, penguins do not live in the Arctic due to predators like polar bears.

Gentoo penguin

Per international law, people must keep their distance from penguins. However, if they approach you, it’s your good luck. Case in point, during my Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic trip in 2010, a curious gentoo penguin marched right up to my camera.

“I like your red coat,” he said in my imagination. “I’m so sick of black and white! Bleh!”

Besides various types of penguins, few species live on the inhospitable Antarctic land. But many types of whales and seals live in the Antarctic Ocean. My personal favorite is the massive leopard seal which a professional diver on my trip daringly recorded on video. The seal swam right up to her camera, practically sticking his nose in the lens. Surely, she was the first photographer he ever encountered.

Finally, Antarctica is the most endangered continent, warming more quickly than the others. In the past 50 years, average temperatures on the Antarctic Peninsula have increased by 3 °C (37 °F), five times the average warming elsewhere. This has led to changes in wildlife habitats and sea ice formations. For example, we saw far more colonies of gentoo penguins than Adélie; in the past, this was reversed.

Global warming has also put 87 percent of the peninsula’s glaciers in retreat. That explains why it got up to 16 °C (60 °F) one day on my trip! We could see ice melting on glaciers as we drag-raced in a kayak against penguins. In 2020, Antarctica recorded its highest temperature ever at 21 °C (69 °F).

Transantarctic Mountains. Map courtesy of NASA.

Antarctica is full of topographical secrets, including hidden lakes, red water, volcanos and one of the longest mountain ranges on earth. At 3,500 kilometers (2,175 miles) long, the Transantarctic Mountains separate west and east (two-thirds) Antarctica.

Blood Falls. Photo courtesy of Peter Rejcek.

Hiding under the Antarctic ice sheet is freshwater Lake Vostok (about the size of Lake Ontario in North America) and more than 200 smaller, flowing lakes. Taylor Glacier is stained deep red by water from a subglacial lake high in salt and oxidized iron. The water flowing from within the glacier is aptly named Blood Falls.

Finally, Antarctica is home to several volcanoes, two of which are active. Mount Erebus on Ross Island is the southernmost active volcano on the planet. It creates fumaroles (giant chimneys of ice) from hot gas that it spews into the air. At its summit, it has one of the world’s five persistent lava lakes (counterintuitive surrounded by ice!). The second active volcano is Deception Island in the South Shetland Islands. Once the site of a whaling station and later scientific one, everything was abandoned after the volcano erupted in 1969. It is indeed a deception that this “island” is actually a ring around a flooded volcanic caldera.

Deception Island. Map courtesy of Martí and Baraldo (1990) and Smellie et al. (2002).

We stopped on the island to explore the ruins. Then the most insane of us voluntarily walked into the Antarctic Sea from the coast for a heart-stopping swim. In the land of extremes, what else would you expect? But in that moment, expletives replaced superlatives …

Antarctica Lindblad Expeditions

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Unlike Australia, Antarctica is only a continent, not also a country. That’s because it does not have sovereignty, a government, a political system, an army or a permanent population.