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Antarctica is the fifth largest of the world’s seven continents. Its land mass is located at the South Pole and lies almost entirely inside of the Antarctic Circle. The South Pole, near the Queen Maud Mountains, at 90 degrees south, is also about the geographic center of the continent. Most of the Antarctic continent extends to the Antarctic Circle at 66 degrees 30 minutes north of the South Pole. The size of the continent of Antarctica is 5,400,000 million square miles (13,985,936 square kilometers.). Its land area combined with its ice cap makes it larger than either Australia or Europe. The ice cap that covers almost all of Antarctica is more than two miles (3.2 km.) thick in most places. The Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans surround the island continent of Antarctica. Some have called the ocean waters around the continent the Antarctic or Southern Ocean; however, the general scholarly opinion is that it does not have a true ocean. The Transantarctic Mountains separate the continent into the larger region of East Antarctica and the smaller region of West Antarctica. The Indian and South Atlantic Oceans surround the East Antarctica area. West Antarctica faces the Pacific Ocean.
The land in West Antarctica between the Transantarctic Mountains and the Marie Mountains is covered with a thick sheet of ice. If the ice cap were to melt, much of West Antarctica would turn into islands because the area is mostly below sea level. West Antarctica is part of the Pacific “ring of fire” and contains several active volcanoes. It was formed later than East Antarctica. Geological studies of East Antarctica have revealed that this area is composed of Precambrian shield. Other geological surveys have found small deposits of copper in the Antarctic Peninsula, coal beds in the Transantarctic Mountains, and traces of other minerals including gold, zinc, lead, iron, and manganese. The mountain ranges and volcanoes of West Antarctica contain the continent’s highest elevation, reaching to a height of 16,864 feet (5,141 meters), on the Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains near the Antarctic Peninsula. The Antarctic Peninsula is an S-shaped range of mountains that is really an extension of the Andean Mountains. Islands in proximity to the peninsula include the South Shetland Island and Deception Island, which is also an active volcano.
The area of East Antarctica has a mountainous coastline with a riftvalley that cuts deep into the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Prince Charles Mountains. Glaciers move down the mountain valleys in Antarctica to the oceans. In the summertime, they drop or “calve” icebergs. Many of these will later be blown up into ice packs against the Antarctica landmass. Most of East Antarctica is a plateau covered with ice with a depth of greater than two miles. The average height of the plateau is 10,000 feet (3,000 meters). Sastrugi, which are ridges of ice and snow, are formed on the plateau by strong winds that can exceed 100 miles per hour. The climate of Antarctica is extremely cold and dry. The South Pole and its surrounding environment is a cold desert that receives only about two inches (five centimeters) of snow each year. The coasts of the continent are moist and receive up to 24 inches (61 centimeters) of snowfall each year. There are a few places in the Transantarctic Mountains and elsewhere where valleys are free of ice and snow. The winds sweep these valleys so fiercely that snow cannot accumulate.
Despite the fact that Antarctica has a cold desert climate, it contains so much ice that about 70 percent of the freshwater on earth is to be found there. Some engineers have explored the possibility of towing icebergs from Antarctica to desert regions of the world where they would be used for fresh water.
Life in the Ice
There are very few plants in Antarctica. In some lakes and on the continental edge, algae grow on snow at times, turning the areas into pink or green tinged snowfields. In other places, mosses and lichens cling to rocks despite the harsh environment. A tiny wingless midge (fly) survives on the Antarctic mainland. However, most insects are parasites such as lice, fleas, mites, and ticks found on seals or birds. While the Antarctic continent is a cold, virtually sterile desert, the waters surrounding the continent are teeming with life. Plankton and krill abound in the nutrient rich waters off the continent. Other sea animals include squid and various kinds of fish. These smaller life forms provide a rich diet for many species of whales, seals, and penguins.
Antarctica has several kinds of seals. In the 19th century, they were hunted for their fur. The southern elephant seal is the largest kind of seal in the world. Other seals include the Ross seal, Weddell seals, Crabeater seals, Antarctic fur seals, and Leopard seals. There are four kinds of penguins found in Antarctica. Unable to fly, penguins are excellent swimmers. The Emperor penguin is probably the most famous of all Antarctic wildlife. About four feet (1.2 meters) tall, they are known for their mutual care of the egg produced by a breeding pair. After laying the egg, the male Emperor penguin puts it onto his feet, where it is incubated. The most common penguin is the Adelie, which builds nests of pebbles on the beaches. Chinstrap penguins and Gentoo penguins inhabit the Antarctic islands and the Antarctic Peninsula. King penguins, macaroni penguins, and Rockhopper penguins nest in the islands north of Antarctica. In addition, there are over 40 species of flying birds that spend the summer in Antarctica, including cormorants, gulls, pirons, albatrosses, and terns.
Krill is the food of Blue whales, Fin whales, Humpback whales, Minke whales, Right whales and Sei whales. The Blue whale is rare, but is the largest animal that has ever lived. Other whales in Antarctic waters include Sperm, Southern Bottlenose, Southern Fourtooth, and Orcas (Killer). These whales eat fish and squid, while Orcas prey on seals, penguins, and other smaller whales. There are over 100 species of fish found in Antarctic waters. These include Antarctic cod, icefish, and plunderfish. In the 1800s, whalers and seal hunters killed great numbers of whales and seals, but they have since been protected by international agreements.
The only human settlements in Antarctica are scientific research stations. Some are used only in the summertime, while a few are occupied in the winter. No country exercises sovereignty over Antarctica. The United States has rejected a claim to the continent, but has reserved the right to do so because seven other countries have made claims. These are Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Great Britain, New Zealand, and Norway. In 1959, 12 countries signed the Antarctica Treaty. The agreement and additional later agreements form the Antarctica Treaty System.
- David G. Campbell, Crystal Desert: Summers in Antarctica (Houghton Mifflin Co., 2002);
- Scovazzi Francioni, International Law for Antarctica (Brill Academic Publishers, 1997);
- Mike Lucas, Antarctica (Artabras Publishers, 1999);
- David McGonigal, Antarctica: The Blue Continent (Firefly Books, , 2003);
- Tony Soper, Antarctica: A Guide to the Wildlife (Bradt Publications, 2005).