This article acknowledges funding from the Antarctic Science Bursary
What is Antarctica?
At the far south of our planet, beyond the farthest tips of Patagonia, South Africa, and New Zealand, lies a big white land – Antarctica. It’s white because of the ice and snow that covers most of this huge continent. In fact, ice covers almost all of Antarctica – only 2% of the land surface is ice-free, and that is covered in snow most of the time! This ice is the Antarctic Ice Sheet, the biggest mass of ice on our planet.
Antarctica is a continent, surrounded by an ocean, which freezes with sea ice. This is different to the Arctic, which is entirely ocean, covered in sea ice, and surrounded by continents.
The image below shows the Arctic Ocean and the Antarctic region, and shows how the sea ice varies between the two poles. The sea ice grows each winter and shrinks each summer as it melts. The seasons are opposite in the two poles; it is summer in the Arctic and Northern Hemisphere when it is winter in the Antarctic.
How big is Antarctica?
Antarctica is a huge continent! If all the ice in Antarctica were to melt, sea levels would rise by 57.9 metres.
The picture below shows how big Antarctica is when compared to the UK. Antarctica covers 14 million km2, and you could fit the whole of the United States within its borders!
The image below shows how large Antarctica is compared with the USA (image from NASA).
Ice sheets, ice shelves, icebergs and sea ice
The Antarctic Ice Sheet is so big that we split it up into two parts – the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. These ice sheets are on land, called grounded ice, and contain a huge volume of ice – around 60% of the all the fresh water on Earth!
At the edges of the ice sheets, the ice begins to float on sea water, called ice shelves. These ice shelves are important because they hold back ice in the ice sheet, stopping it from flowing and melting quickly. It’s so cold around the southern hemisphere that the sea is often frozen, which we call sea ice. This is different to the ice shelves because sea ice is thin, and not connected to the ice sheet.
Sometimes, a part of the thick ice shelf breaks off and floats away, and it becomes an iceberg. This breaking away event is called calving.
You might think Antarctica is too cold for wildlife. But Antarctica and its seas are teeming with life! The most famous residents are penguins, who live on the land and hunt for fish in the sea. There are mammals too, such as seals, and the seas surrounding Antarctica are rich in plankton, fish, and whales. Many birds live on or fly around Antarctica too, feeding in the sea that surrounds the continent.
People in Antarctica
Despite it being very cold all the time, some people live and work in Antarctica, but only temporarily. A lot of research happens on Antarctica, with scientists and engineers learning about the vast, icy continent, and developing technology that can cope with the cold climate. Because Antarctica is so remote, and has a unique and stunning landscape and wildlife, it attracts tourists from all over the world, who visit on ships to see the continent, or even climb and ski its mountains.