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Antarctica
Location of Antarctica
Area 14,000,000 km² (280,000 km² ice-free, 13,720,000 km² ice-covered)
Population ~1,000 (none permanent)
Government None, governed by the Antarctic Treaty System
Partial Territorial claims Flag of Argentina Argentina
Flag of Australia Australia
Flag of Chile Chile
Flag of France France
Flag of New Zealand New Zealand
Flag of Norway Norway
Flag of United Kingdom United Kingdom
Internet TLD .aq
Calling Code +672
Antarctica ( Greek, antarktikos: "opposite the Arctic" ) is a continent encircling the Earth's South Pole, surrounded by the Southern Ocean and divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains. It is a cold desert and, on average, the coldest place on Earth. 98% of the continent is covered by ice. Its 14 million km² make it the fifth largest continent and the world's largest desert. There are no permanent human residents, and only cold-adapted plants and animals survive there, including penguins, fur seals, and hundreds of types of algae.Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis ("Southern Land") go back to antiquity, the first commonly accepted sighting of the continent occurred in 1820 and the first verified landing in 1821 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. The continent had been largely neglected in the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of efficient resources, and its isolated location.Antarctica is not under the political sovereignty of any nation, although various countries including Argentina, Chile, France, Australia, and New Zealand maintain internationally unrecognized territorial claims. Its usage is regulated by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 12 countries, which prohibits any military activity, supports scientific research, and protects the continent's ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted yearly by more than 4,000 scientists of diverse backgrounds and interests.

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Contents

Exploration
Geography
Geological History
Climate
Population
Flora and fauna
Politics
Economy
Research



Exploration - Contents

The Endurance at night during Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914.
The Endurance at night during Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition in 1914.
In the Western world, beliefs in a Terra Australis—a vast continent located in the far south of the globe to "balance" out the northern lands of Europe, Asia and north Africa—had existed for centuries. Even by late in the 17th century, after explorers had found that South America and Australia were not part of "Antarctica", geographers believed the continent was much larger than its true size. European maps continued to show this land until Captain James Cook and the crews of his expedition's ships, Resolution and Adventure, crossed the Antarctic Circle on January 17, 1773 and again in 1774. The first confirmed sighting of Antarctica cannot be accurately attributed to one single person. It can, however, be narrowed down to three individuals. According to various organizations (the National Science Foundation, NASA , the University of California, San Diego , and other sources), three men all sighted Antarctica within days or weeks of each other: Fabian von Bellingshausen (a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy), Edward Bransfield (a captain in the British navy), and Nathaniel Palmer (an American sealer out of Stonington, Connecticut). Bransfield supposedly saw Antarctica on January 27, 1820, three days before Palmer sighted land. It is certain that on January 28, 1820 the expedition led by Fabian von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Petrovich Lazarev on two ships reached a point within 32 km (20 miles) of the Antarctic mainland and saw ice fields there.In 1841 explorer James Clark Ross sailed through what is now known as the Ross Sea and discovered Ross Island. He sailed along a huge wall of ice that was later named the Ross Ice Shelf. Mount Erebus and Mount Terror are named after two ships from his expedition: HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. During an expedition by Ernest Shackleton, parties led by T. W. Edgeworth David became the first to climb Mount Erebus and to reach the South Magnetic Pole. On December 14, 1911, a party led by Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen from the ship Fram became the first to reach the South Pole, using a route from the Bay of Whales and up the Axel Heiberg Glacier. After Robert Falcon Scott's journey, Richard Evelyn Byrd led several voyages to the Antarctic by plane in the 1930s and 1940s. He is credited with implementing mechanized land transport and conducting extensive geological and biological research. However, it was not until October 31, 1956 that anyone set foot on the South Pole again; on that day a U.S. Navy group led by Rear Admiral George Dufek successfully landed on an aircraft.


Geography - Contents

A satellite composite image of Antarctica
A satellite composite image of Antarctica
The continent of Antarctica is located mostly south of the Antarctic Circle, surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Antarctica is the southernmost land mass on Earth comprising more than 14 million km² making it the 5th largest continent. The coastline measures 17,968 km. Physically, Antarctica is divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The portion of the continent west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is called Western Antarctica and the remainder Eastern Antarctica, because they correspond roughly to the Eastern and Western Hemispheres relative to the Greenwich meridian. Western Antarctica is covered by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. About 98 percent of Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet that is, on average, 2.5 kilometers thick. Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica at 4,897 meters, is located in the Ellsworth Mountains. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet has been of recent concern because of the slight possibility of its collapse. If it does break down, ocean levels would rise by a few meters in a very short period of time. Despite its zero rainfall in some areas, the continent has approximately 90% of the world's freshwater- in the form of ice.
Mt. Erebus, an active volcano in Ross Island.
Mt. Erebus, an active volcano in Ross Island.
Although Antarctica is home to many volcanoes, only Deception Island and Mt. Erebus are active. Mount Erebus, located in Ross Island, is the southernmost active volcano on Earth. Minor eruptions are frequent and lava flow has been observed in recent years. Other dormant volcanoes may potentially be active. In 2004, an underwater volcano was found in the Antarctic Peninsula by American and Canadian researchers. Recent evidence shows this unnamed volcano may be active. Antarctica is home to more than 70 lakes that lie thousands of meters under the surface of the continental ice sheet, including one under the South Pole itself. Lake Vostok, discovered beneath Russia's Vostok Station in 1996, is the largest of these subglacial lakes. It is believed that the lake has been sealed off for 35 million years. There is some evidence that Vostok's waters may contain microbial life. Due to the lake's similarity to Europa, a moon of Jupiter, confirming that life can survive in Lake Vostok might strengthen the argument for the presence of life on Europa.


Geological History - Contents

More than 170 million years ago (mya), Antarctica was part of the giant continent Gondwana, and located in the vicinity of the equator. After the disruption of Gondwana, it slowly drifted southwards. About 65 mya, Antarctica (then still connected to Australia) had still tropical to subtropical climate, complete with a marsupial fauna, but 30 mya the first ice appeared. 25 mya, due to the opening of the Drake passage between Antarctica and South America and the resulting Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the ice spread quickly, displacing the woods that then covered the continent. Since about 5 mya, the continent is mostly covered with ice.


Climate - Contents

The Blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountains, comes from glacial meltwater from the Canada Glacier and other smaller glaciers.
The Blue ice covering Lake Fryxell, in the Transantarctic Mountains, comes from glacial meltwater from the Canada Glacier and other smaller glaciers.
Antarctica is the coldest place on earth. Antarctica has little rainfall, with the South Pole getting none, making it a continental desert. Temperatures reach a minimum of between −85 and −90 degrees Celsius (−121 and −130 degrees Fahrenheit) in the winter and about 30 degrees higher in the summer months. Sunburn is often a health issue as the snow surface reflects over 90% of the sunlight falling on it. Eastern Antarctica is colder than its western counterpart because of its higher elevation. Weather fronts rarely penetrate far into the continent, leaving the center cold and dry. There is little precipitation over the central portion of the continent, but ice there can last for extended time periods. However, heavy snowfalls are not uncommon on the coastal portion of the continent, where snowfalls of up to 1.22 meters (48 inches) in 48 hours have been recorded. At the edge of the continent, strong katabatic winds off the polar plateau often blow at storm force. In the interior, however, wind speeds are often moderate. During summer more solar radiation reaches the surface at the South Pole than is received at the equator in an equivalent period. Depending on the latitude, long periods of constant darkness, or constant sunlight, mean that climates familiar to humans are not generally available on the continent.Several phenomena are present in the continent. The aurora australis, commonly known as the southern lights, is a glow observed in the night sky near the south pole. Another unique spectacle is diamond dust. Diamond dust refers to a ground-level cloud composed of tiny ice crystals. Diamond dust generally forms under otherwise clear or nearly clear skies, so people sometimes also refer to it as clear-sky precipitation. A sundog, a frequent atmospheric optical phenomenon, is a bright "spot" beside the true sun.
Tabletop icebergs in Antarctica
Tabletop icebergs in Antarctica



Population - Contents

Two American researchers studying plankton through microscopes.
Two American researchers studying plankton through microscopes.
Although Antarctica has no permanent residents, a number of governments maintain permanent research stations throughout the continent. The population of persons doing and supporting science on the continent and its nearby islands varies from approximately 4,000 in summer to 1,000 in winter. Many of the stations are staffed around the year. Emilio Marcos Palma was the first person born in Antarctica (Base Esperanza) in 1978, his parents being sent there along with seven other families by the Argentinean government to determine if family life was suitable in the continent. In 1986 Juan Pablo Camacho was born at the Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva Base, becoming the first Chilean born in Antarctica. Several bases are now home to families with children attending schools at the station.


Flora and fauna - Contents



Flora
More than 200 species of lichens are known in Antarctica.
More than 200 species of lichens are known in Antarctica.
The climate of Antarctica does not allow for much vegetation to exist. A combination of freezing temperatures, soil quality, lack of moisture and sunlight limit the chances for plants to exist. As a result, plant life is limited to mostly mosses and liverworts. The autotrophic community is made up of mostly protists. The flora of the continent largely consists of lichens, bryophytes, algae, and fungi. Growth generally occurs in the summer and only for a few weeks, at most.There are more than 200 species of lichens and approximately 50 species of bryophytes, such as mosses. Seven hundred species of algae exist, most of which are phytoplankton. Multicolored snow algae and diatoms are especially abundant in the coastal regions during the summer. There are two species of flowering plants found in the Antarctic Peninsula: Antarctic hair grass and Antarctic pearlwort

Fauna
Emperor Penguins in Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Emperor Penguins in Ross Sea, Antarctica.
Land fauna is completely invertebrate. Such invertebrate life includes microscopic mites, lice, and springtails. The midge, just 12 mm in size, is the largest land animal in Antarctica (other than man). The snow petrel is only one of three birds that breed exclusively in Antarctica and have been seen at the South Pole.A variety of marine animals exist, and they feed on the phytoplankton. Antarctic sea life includes penguins, blue whales, and fur seals. More specifically, the Emperor penguin is the only penguin that breeds during the winter in Antarctica. The Rockhopper penguin has distinctive feathers around the eyes; one could call them elaborate eyelashes. King penguins are also predominant in the Antarctic. The Antarctic fur seal was very heavily hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries for its pelt by sealers from the United States and the United Kingdom. Antarctic krill, which congregate in large schools, is the keystone species of the ecosystem of the Southern Ocean, and is an important food organism for whales, seals, leopard seals, fur seals, squid, icefish, penguins, albatrosses and many other birds. The approval of the Antarctic Conservation Act brought several restrictions to the continent. The introduction of alien plants or animals can bring a criminal penalty, as can the extraction of any indigenous species. The overfishing of krill, which plays a large role in the Antarctic ecosystem, led officials to enact regulations on fishing. The Convention for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), a treaty enacted in 1980, requires that regulations managing all Southern Ocean fisheries consider potential effects on the entire Antarctic ecosystem. Despite these new acts, unregulated and illegal fishing, particularly of Patagonian toothfish, remains a serious problem. Particularly, the illegal fishing of toothfish has been increasing with estimates of 32,000 tonnes in 2000.
  • Underwater Field Guide to Ross Island & McMurdo Sound, Antarctica



Politics - Contents

Antarctica is considered a neutral territory in respect to politics. The Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959, and related agreements, collectively called the Antarctic Treaty System, regulate international relations with respect to Antarctica, Earth's only uninhabited continent. For the purposes of the treaty system, Antarctica is defined as all land and ice shelves south of the southern 60th parallel. The treaty was signed by 12 countries, including the Soviet Union and the United States, and set aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, established freedom of scientific investigation, environmental protection, and banned military activity on that continent. This was the first arms control agreement established during the Cold War. The Antarctic Treaty prohibits any measures of a military nature in Antarctica, such as the establishment of military bases and fortifications, the carrying out of military maneuvers, or the testing of any type of weapon. It permits the use of military personnel or equipment for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes. Antarctica has no government. Various countries claim areas of it, but most countries do not recognize those claims. The area between 90 degrees west and 150 degrees west is the only land on Earth not claimed by any country. The only documented large-scale land military maneuver was " Operación 90", undertaken 10 years before the Antarctic Treaty by the Argentinian military. The United States military issues the Antarctica Service Medal to military members or civilians who perform research duty on the Antarctica continent. The medal may include a winter-over bar issued to those who remain on the continent for two complete six-month seasons.

Antarctic territories
Territorial claims of Antarctica
Territorial claims of Antarctica
Flag Territory Claimant Claim limits Date
Adelie Land France 142°02'E to 136°'11'E 1924
Argentine Antarctica Argentina 25°W to 74°W 1943
Australian Antarctic Territory Australia 160°E to 142°02'E and 136°11'E to 44°38'E 1933
Antártica Chilena Province Chile 53°W to 90°W 1940
British Antarctic Territory United Kingdom 20°W to 80°W 1908
Dronning Maud Land
Peter I Island
Norway 44°38'E to 20°W
68°50'S, 90°35'W
1939
1929
Ross Dependency New Zealand 150°W to 160°E 1923
The Argentinean, British and Chilean claims all overlap.Germany also maintained a claim to Antarctica, known as New Swabia between 1939 and 1945. It was situated at 20°E and 10°W, overlapping Norway's claim.


Economy - Contents

The illegal capture and sale of the Patagonian toothfish has led to several arrests.
The illegal capture and sale of the Patagonian toothfish has led to several arrests.
Although coal, hydrocarbons, iron ore, platinum, copper, chromium, nickel, gold and other minerals have been found, they exist in quantities too small to exploit. The 1991 Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty prevents such struggle for resources. In 1998 a compromise agreement was reached to add a 50-year ban on mining until the year 2048, further limiting economic development and exploitation. The primary agricultural activity is the capture and offshore trading of fish. Antarctic fisheries in 2000-01 reported landing 112,934 metric tons. Small-scale tourism has existed since 1957. As of 2006 several ships transport people into Antarctica for specific scenic locations. A total of 13,571 tourists visited in the 2002-03 antarctic summer with nearly all of them coming from commercial ships. The average stay is about two weeks. Antarctic flights brought tourists from Australia and New Zealand until the fatal crash of Air New Zealand Flight 901 in 1979 near Mount Erebus.


Research - Contents

A full moon and 25-second exposure allowed sufficient light into this photo taken at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the long Antarctic night. The new station can be seen at far left, power plant in the center and the old mechanic's garage in the lower right.
A full moon and 25-second exposure allowed sufficient light into this photo taken at Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station during the long Antarctic night. The new station can be seen at far left, power plant in the center and the old mechanic's garage in the lower right.
Each year, scientists from 27 different nations conduct experiments not reproducible in any other place in the world but the Antarctic. In the summer more than 4,000 scientists operate research stations; this number decreases to nearly 1,000 in the winter. The McMurdo Station is capable of housing more than a thousand scientists, visitors, and tourists.Researchers include biologists, geologists, oceanographers, physicists, astronomers, glaciologists, and meteorologists. Geologists tend to study plate tectonics in the Arctic region, meteorites from the outer space, and resources from the breakup of the supercontinent Gondwanaland. Glaciologists in Antarctica are concerned with the study of the history and dynamics of floating ice, seasonal snow, glaciers, and ice sheets. Biologists, in addition to examining the wildlife, are interested in how harsh temperatures and the presence of people affect adaptation and survival strategies in a wide variety of organisms. Astrophysicists in Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station are able to study the celestial dome and cosmic microwave background radiation because of the ozone hole and the location's dry, cold environment. Medical physicians have made discoveries concerning the spreading of viruses and the body's response to extreme seasonal temperatures. Since the 1970s an important focus of study has been the ozone layer in the atmosphere above Antarctica. In 1998 NASA satellite data showed that the Antarctic ozone hole was the largest on record, covering 27 million square kilometers. In 2002 significant areas of ice shelves disintegrated in response to regional warming.
Antarctic meteorite, named ALH84001, from Mars.
Antarctic meteorite, named ALH84001, from Mars.
Meteorites from Antarctica are a relatively recent resource for study of the material formed early in the solar system; most are thought to come from asteroids, but some may have originated on larger planets. The first meteorites in Antarctica were found in 1912. In 1969 the Japanese discovered nine meteorites in Antarctica. Most of these meteorites have fallen onto the ice sheet in the last one million years. Motion of the ice sheet tends to concentrate the meteorites at blocking locations such as mountain ranges, with wind erosion bringing them to the surface after centuries beneath accumulated snowfall. Compared with meteorites collected in more temperate regions on Earth, the Antarctic meteorites are relatively well preserved. This large collection of meteorites allows a better understanding of the abundance of meteorite types in the solar system and how meteorites relate to asteroids and comets. New types of meteorites and rare meteorites have been found. Among these meteorites are pieces blasted off the moon, and probably Mars, by impacts. These specimens, specifically ALH84001 discovered by ANSMET, are at the center of the controversy about possible evidence of microbial life on early Mars. Because meteorites in space absorb and record cosmic radiation, the time elapsed since the meteorite hit the Earth can be determined from laboratory studies. The elapsed time since fall, or terrestrial residence age, of a meteorite represents more information that might be useful in environmental studies of Antarctic ice sheets.
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