20 Facts People Should Know About Antarctica
As Antarctica’s Health Goes, so Does the World's
Antarctica is a land of daunting extremes; it’s the coldest, driest and windiest place on Earth and, because of these reasons, is also the least populated. Moreover, less is known about Antarctica than any other continent, yet it may be the most important one as it relates to the dangers of pollution and climate change. Antarctica is like a canary in a coal mine - a delicate creature that can easily succumb to contamination. Therefore, everybody on the planet should know more about it.
The Vast Unknown Land
1. Antarctica Eons Ago
About 170 million years ago, Antarctica was part of a supercontinent known as Gondwana or, as it used to be called, Gondwanaland, which comprised most of the continents in the present day Southern Hemisphere. Due to the mechanism of plate tectonics, the continents gradually moved apart, until about 25 million years ago, when Antarctica became what it is today - the mysterious, isolated land mass that covers the southern end of the world.
Because Antarctica has been an isolated for millions of years, the various currents, waves and winds that circle about it encounter nothing that can slow them down or warm them up. So, in the southern oceans around Antarctica waves can reach more than 100 feet in height, hurricane force winds are common and temperatures can plunge to minus 100 degrees or more.
(In this story all temperatures are noted using the Fahrenheit scale.)
Also because of this isolation, Antarctica is a frozen desert – its total yearly precipitation at the South Pole is less than four inches per year, though you wouldn’t think so because the continent is almost entirely covered with ice!
2. The Continent’s First Human
In 1821, an American named John Davis became the first human to set foot on Antarctica, and over the following decades explorers, scientists, sealers, whalers and, more recently, tourists, have visited Antarctica. In 1959, 12 nations joined the Antarctic Treaty System (subsequently including another 38 countries). This treaty bans both commercial and military activity on the continent.
3. Weird Names
A strange, forbidding place, to say the least, many locations in Antarctica have eccentric names such as the Executive Committee Range, the Office Girls, Desolate Island, Cape Disappointment, the Eternity Range, Elephant Island, Battleship Promontory, Blood Falls, Exasperation Inlet and Mount Terror.
4. World’s Toughest Seals
Certainly one of the hardiest marine mammals in the world, Antarctica’s Weddell seals don’t migrate to warmer climes in the winter; they stay under the sea ice, meters thick in places, gnawing holes in the ice when they must in order to breathe. They can stay in the dark, briny abyss for up to 80 minutes at a time in water that’s about 28 degrees. Then, in the summer, they climb upon the sea ice and bask in the sunlight, relaxing for a change, it appears.
5. Gigantic Chunk of Ice
In March 2000, a giant chunk of the Ross Ice Shelf calved into the sea, forming one of the largest icebergs ever seen. This gigantic ‘berg was more than 100 miles long and larger than the state of Delaware.
6. Winds From Hell
An Antarctic explorer of note, geologist Douglas Mawson, had no interest in traveling to the South Geographic Pole, instead he preferred the South Magnetic Pole, which moves constantly, by the way, as does the North Magnetic Pole. During this arduous trek in 1907 he discovered that Antarctica is a land of dramatic climatic extremes, particularly its furious winds, some of the most powerful on the planet, at times moving over 200 mph. Describing the experience, Mawson wrote:
The climate proved to be little more than one continuous blizzard the year around; a hurricane of wind roaring for weeks together, pausing for breath only at odd hours. A plunge into the writhing storm-whirl stamps upon the senses an indelible and awful impression, seldom equaled in the whole gamut of natural experience. The world a void, grisly, fierce and appalling. We stumble and struggle through the Stygian gloom; the merciless blast – and incubus of vengeance – stabs, buffets and freezes; the stinging drift blinds and chokes.
7. Dry and Lifeless as Mars
The McMurdo Dry Valleys in Western Antarctica provide a planetary analog to that of conditions on Mars. These valleys are so dry they don’t have ice in them; in fact, many of them have seen no running water for over 10 million years, so little if anything about them has changed for a very long time! The surface of Mars – at least parts of it – has probably changed more than these arid, desolate valleys in Antarctica.
Nevertheless, a little ice can be found in some of them and temperatures may climb above freezing during the summer, so these otherworldly valleys have microscopic forms of life. How about Mars? Nobody knows as yet, of course.
8. Awesome Birds
Of the many Antarctic birds, Emperor penguins are the most accomplished swimmers; they can dive as much as 1,500 feet below the surface and stay down for as long as 15 minutes. They do this by slowing their heart rate and metabolism until they’re essentially comatose!
9. Landing Place for Meteorites
Being a land almost entirely covered with ice and snow – and completely devoid of trees, plants, dirt or roads - Antarctica is certainly the greatest place in the world to look for meteorites. Just about anything, especially dark pieces of rock, can be seen on this sea of white. So, not surprisingly, over 50,000 meteorites have been found on Antarctica, many more than the total found over the rest of the planet. Amazingly, in 1981, researchers discovered that an Antarctic meteorite labeled ALH81005 had come from the lunar highlands of the Moon!
10. It Came From Another Planet
Then in 1996, researchers found that Antarctic meteorite ALH84001 had the characteristic fingerprint of Mars. Every celestial body has such a chemical fingerprint, and this one had the one matching the Red Planet. Scientists later discovered that the meteorite contained what could be remnants of worm-shaped nanobacteria. This was truly a baffling discovery!
The South Pole and Other Strange Places
11. Race to the Pole
On December 14, 1911 Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first human to trek to the Geographic South Pole, and he and his crew made it back without mishap. About a month later, Englishman Robert F. Scott and his crew made it to the pole but, while returning, the Scott Expedition got caught in a lengthy storm just 11 miles from base camp and froze to death. So close, yet so far!
12. World’s Biggest Ice Cube
The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is the largest body of ice in the world and covers 10 million square kilometers and, in some places, is four kilometers thick. If this entire ice sheet melted at one time, sea level throughout the world would rise more than 200 feet!
13. Cosmic Exploration
At the Geographic South Pole lies the so-called Dark Sector, where numerous telescopes and other sensing devices can be found. During the winter, when temperatures may drop from 50 to 100 degrees below zero and the sky is as dark as any place in the world - and stays dark for months at a time - scientists study the cosmos as few have done before. A wide variety of telescopes are used, including the world’s largest neutrino telescope, built two kilometers below the surface of ice!
14. This Place Isn’t so Cold!
Personnel at the South Pole, many of whom staying there for multiple winters, like to have fun and/or test their mettle by going to extremes. One thing they do is soak in the sauna, in which the temperature may reach 200 degrees, and then quickly run outside, sometimes little more than naked, and then dash to the pole in minus 100-degree frigidity, experiencing an instantaneous temperature change of 300 degrees and thereby join the exclusive "300 Club."
15. Drilling for the Ages
At the Dome C Concordia research center, manned primarily by people from France and Italy, researchers drill for ice cores, hoping to see what the atmosphere of Antarctica was like over the ages. One of the deepest cores went down about 10,000 feet, where the ice is 800,000 years old!
16. Realm of Dinosaurs
Until the 1980s, dinosaur fossils had been found in every continent except Antarctica, but that changed in 1986 when geologists Eduardo Roberto Scasso found such a fossil on James Ross Island. The scientists found the fossil remnants of an ankylosaur, a stocky, plant-eating quadruped, whose scientific name became Antarctopelta oliveroi. This extinct beast lived about 100 million years ago, when Antarctica was a warmer, wetter place, as well as ice free.
17. Climate Change on the Continent
These days, most of the tourists who visit the continent – tens of thousands per year - come to the Antarctica Peninsula, where temperatures may climb above freezing during the summer. (Much of the peninsula lies north of the Antarctic Circle.) In fact, the peninsula is warming at a rate three times the global average. Many scientists think this increase is due to global warming in Antarctica. Indicative of this warming trend is the fact that four ice shelves on the peninsula are melting rapidly.
Also on the peninsula, in early 2002, a big chunk of the Larsen Ice Shelf part B suddenly collapsed into the ocean. This chunk was about the size of the state of Rhode Island. The disaster film, The Day After Tomorrow, has an opening scene that depicts this startling event.
18. Death by Crevasse
Aside from freezing to death as a common form of death in Antarctica, traveling across the surface of Antarctica has always been a hazardous venture. The aforementioned author, Gabrielle Walker, wrote in her book: “Crevasses are the most prevalent – and romantic – danger in Antarctica. The great Antarctic heroes marched resolutely over the ice, knowing the risks, that at any moment they could plunge through a thin bridge of snow and find themselves dangling helplessly in their harnesses over a gigantic blue crack that descended all the way to oblivion.”
19. Nobody Wants Western Antarctica
Western Antarctica is so remote and forbidding that it’s the world’s largest unclaimed territory. Explorer Admiral Richard Byrd, after flying over the South Pole, mapped much of Western Antarctica and named the western part of the ice sheet Marie Byrd Land, honoring his wife.
But perhaps Admiral Byrd’s greatest claim to fame is that he seemed impervious to loneliness. Hoping to measure the inland weather through the Antarctic winter, Byrd had his support crew sink a prefabricated hut into the ice about 130 miles from Little America and then told them he was going to spend the winter there – alone. Byrd spent seven months in continuous darkness and mind-numbing cold all by himself in one of the remotest places on Earth! Who would do that?
Also of note in Western Antarctica, the Pine Island Glacier is the fastest melting glacier in Antarctica, accounting for about 20 to 25 per cent of Antarctica’s ice loss. Scientists consider this glacier to be the soft underbelly of Western Antarctica’s ice sheet and its retreat into the ice sheet may be unstoppable.
20. Hidden Lakes
According to studies since the 1960s, researchers have discovered hundreds of unseen lakes under Antarctica’s ice sheet. Nobody has actually seen these hidden lakes, but their presence is easily detected. In fact, the one beneath Russia’s Volstok Station is estimated to be the size of Lake Superior, making it the seventh largest fresh water lake in the world. Scientists think that wetlands may exist with some of these vast subterranean bodies of water.
Scientists have been studying the ozone layer above Antarctica since the 1980s, and in 2006 they discovered a so-called ozone hole covering almost the entire continent. This ozone hole is caused by the emission of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), which deplete the amount of ozone in the atmosphere. These chemicals, in addition to reducing the effectiveness of the atmosphere to shield the Earth from ultraviolet radiation, also play a role in accelerating global warming. Fortunately, countries throughout the world are reducing the use of CFCs or banning them altogether, such as the US has done. This is a hopeful development since it shows that if the countries of the Earth unite, worldwide improvement in the global ecosystem can take place in a matter of years.
Nevertheless, even though Antarctica may be saved from ozone depletion, beneath its ice sheet may be immense deposits of minerals, metals, oil, gas and coal, because, after all, it was once a tropical place, where layers of hydrocarbons tend to accumulate. And if various greedy entities try to exploit these natural riches, who will stop them?
This same kind of “gold rush” is already happening in the Arctic, which is also warming at an alarming rate.
By the way, all the quotes in this story and most of its information come from Gabrielle Walker’s book, Antarctica: An Intimate Portrait of a Mysterious Continent (2013). The author also took facts from Wikipedia’s article on Antarctica and the website, climatenexus.org.
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© 2017 Kelley Marks