11 Cold Hard Facts About Antarctica

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If you're planning a trip to Antarctica, here are some things you should know.

1. Nobody owns Antarctica.

Although a few nations, including Australia, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, have tried to lay claim to it over the years, it remains free of government and ownership. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was drafted, designating the land as "a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science." 48 nations have signed the treaty.

The Admiral Richard E. Byrd Memorial at McMurdo Station. Photo via the US Embassy New Zealand's Flickr account, from the album of the ambassador's trip to Antarctica.

2. Antarctica is the only continent without a time zone.

The scientists who reside there go by either the time of their home land or the supply line that brings them food and equipment.

3. Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth.

The annual average temperature is -58° F. And the lowest temperature ever recorded there was -128.5° F, in 1983.

4. There's a very good reason to hope Antarctica remains that cold.

If global warming were to cause its ice sheets to melt, ocean levels across the world would rise by 200-210 feet.


A large melt pool (a shallow pool appearing on an ice surface in summer) in the sea ice. Photo by Flickr user Eli Duke, from his Antarctica: All Photos set.

5. Not only is it the coldest place, but it's also the driest.

The average precipitation is about 10 cm per year. Yet for all its dryness, Antarctica holds about 70% of the earth's water... in the form of solid ice, of course. (That amounts to 90% of all the ice on the planet.) Antarctica's Dry Valleys are where the combination of cold and dry is the most intense. It hasn't rained there for more than 2 million years. The ground and climate so closely resemble the surface of Mars that NASA did testing there for the Viking mission.

6. There are no permanent residents in Antarctica.

The only people who live there are visiting scientists. During the summer, the number averages about 5,000. In the winter, it drops to 1,000.


Photo of Antarctica residents by Flickr user Eli Duke, from his Antarctica: Week 1 set.

7. One of the things that the scientists study are ice cores.

These long cylindrical samples of Antarctica's ice, with dust and air bubbles trapped inside, can provide a wealth of information about the earth's climate over the past 10,000 years. If the scientist melted one of the ice cores, he could give you a drink of water that was frozen during the Middle Ages, or even during the life of Jesus Christ.

8. If you're interested in meteorites, Antarctica is for you.

For one, meteorites that crash there are easily seen against the ice. They are also better preserved, as they quickly get covered by ice, protecting them from corrosion. Since 1970, there have been more than 10,000 meteorites discovered in Antarctica, a few up to 700,000 years old.


An iron meteorite at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. Photo by Flickr user brookpeterson, from his Antarctica 2011 - McMurdo Life set.

9. Icebergs are also big in Antarctica. Literally.

In 2000, one of the biggest icebergs ever recorded broke free from the Ross ice shelf. It was 183 miles long and 23 miles wide, with a surface area of 4,250 square miles above water – and 10 times bigger below. Imagine if Connecticut was solid ice. That's about the size of it.


Aerial photo of the birth of an iceberg from NASA's IceBridge mission from the NASA's Earth Observatory Flickr account.

10. Remember the documentary film March of the Penguins?
It was shot in Antarctica.

The native Emperor Penguins return to the same ancestral breeding ground there every winter. They are the tallest and heaviest of all penguins, and, because they breed almost exclusively on ice, they are thought to be the only species of bird that never sets foot on land.


Emperor penguins in Antarctica. Photo via the US Embassy New Zealand's Flickr account, from the album of the ambassador's trip to Antarctica.

11. Antarctica grows bigger in the winter.

How? Its sea ice expands about 40,000 square miles per day, adding up to an extra 12 million square miles of ice around the land mass (the equivalent of 1.5 United States). In effect, it doubles the size of the continent. In summer the new ice breaks up and melts.


Antarctica pressure ridges, where the permanent ice shelf and seasonal ice shelf join. Photo by Flickr user Eli Duke, from his Antarctica: All Photos set.

Have any of you ever been there? Is anyone reading this in Antarctica right now?

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January 11, 2012 - 7:11am
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