The Antarctic continent is in many ways the counterpart of the Arctic. Some examples are its name, its location, its geography and its main features.
Thousands of years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle and his scholars after they knew about some features on the North Pole, started a theory considering there should be something similar to that in the South Hemisphere. The basis of such theory presumed it played the role of that of a counterpart to keep the balance among the continental masses.
The hypothetical continent was called “Anti-Arkthos”. This Greek word stands for Antipode (Anti) and Arkthos, referring to the polar star of the Ursa Minor. Then, this was the origin of the word Antarctica.
The Antarctic continent is placed in the southernost part of the earth surrounding the geographic South Pole.
Another difference with the Arctic is that Antarctica is a continent surrounded by the sea, whereas the former is an ice shelf with no underlying landmass surrounded by continents.
This 14,000,000 sq.km continent is almost totally covered with glaciers (only 2% of the area is not) and it is divided by a NW-SE mountain range splitting the rugged part of the continent to the West and the flatter part to the East.
The temperature records show an average range of 10 ºC for the Antarctic Peninsula in summer. The lowest temperature ever recorded was -89.6ºC in Vostok (Russian Station) in 1983.
Conditions in Antarctica are not favorable for the development of complex forms of life, due mainly to the severe climate that leads to an uneven distribution of fauna. Wildlife is thus concentrated in the coastal and the marine environments because of the rich biomass in the ocean.
In this relatively restricted area, a relevant amount of bird and mammal species is found. There are seven species of penguins, several species of albatrosses, petrels and fulmars among other birds - such as skuas, terns or pale faced (snowy) sheathbills - and four species of seals, one otaridae and about ten species of migrating whales, all of them depending at different scales on the food available in the ocean.
Thee white continent is one of the most important natural reserves on the planet, and preserving its environment is, at present, the greatest challenge before the nations subscribing to the antarctic treaty.
The Antarctic tourist season begins in mid november and ends in mid march. The itinerary and length of the trip is variable. From 8 days to 2 months. The vessels used are of the ice breaker type with reinforced hulls. According to the choice of vessel one can enjoy anything from a luxurious trip to an adventurous expedition. The closest continent, 1000km. from Antarctica is south America.
A Geographical Approach
Most of the Antarctic Continent is situated south of the 66°30' S (Antarctic Polar Circle), surrounding the South Pole.
Remote, inhospitable, extreme... Antarctica is the coldest, highest, driest and windiest continent on earth. The landmass is around 14.000.000 Km2, including the iceshelves in summer. The closest neighbor is Southamerica, at about 1,000 km away, while greater distances separate it from New Zealand ( 2,200 km), Australia ( 2.200 km) and South Africa ( 3,600 km.)
In winter the total area is almost twice larger because of the sea ice that is formed around and some ice-free zones, just 2% of the total extension, emerge along the coasts, breaking the monotony of the landscape.
It is the highest of all continents, with an average of 2,050 m a.s.l., mainly due to the layer of ice which varies from a mean of 2,000 to 4,000 m thick. The highest summit, Mount Vinson reaches 5,140 m.
As a consequence of the ocean influence the temperatures along the shores are higher than inland. The “summer” mean temperature is 0ºC on the shores, whereas it varies from -15ºC to -35ºC inland. Summer is not a warm season but the long-lasting days season. In winter it varies from –15ºC to – 30ºC on the coastal area and from -40ºC to -70ºC inland, depending on the location. The lowest temperature ever recorded was 89.3ºC in Vostok.
Winds are extremely strong and blow with violence over the coasts at speeds that sometimes reach 200 km/h. The storms are soundles –no tunders nor lightnings are ever heard or seen- and they may remove the hardest snow. This type of storm is known as blizzard. These strong winds combined with the low temperatures, often create conditions very close to the human tolerance limit, so great care has to be taken when planning activities outside the stations.
Due to the fact that the Antarctic ice represents 90% of the world total and reflects between 50% and 90% of the solar radiation back to the atmosphere, it rules the earth climate, as well as the oceanic and atmosferic circulation and plays a fundamental role in every marine and land ecosystems of the planet.
During the last years, the discovery of the dramatic deterioration of the Ozone layer on the polar regions is a good example to understand how the Antarctic environment may be seriously damaged and, at the same time, how this may have consequences at a world scale.