Antarctica is the world’s largest ice sheet, covering ~14,000,000 km2. Much of the Antarctic ice sheet surface lies above 3000 m above sea level. This massive thickness of ice drowns whole mountain ranges, and numerous volcanoes exist underneath the icey exterior. Antarctica is the world’s fifth largest continent, and it is, on average, the highest and coldest continent.
Antarctica provides a unique record of the Earth’s past climate, through the geomorphological record of glacier moraines, through ice cores, through deep sea sediment cores, and through past records of sea level rise.
The Antarctic Continent
The Antarctic continent comprises three ice sheets: the Antarctic Peninsula Ice Sheet, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. Most of Antarctica is covered by ice (~98%), with ice-free areas on, for example, nunataks (high mountains poking through the ice sheet), James Ross Island and Alexander Island on the Antarctic Peninsula, and the McMurdo Dry Valleys in East Antarctica.
The Antarctic Ice Sheet is drained by fast-flowing ice streams, which respond quickly to climate change; they can thin, accelerate, recede, or even stop flowing entirely. Beneath the thick skin of ice, there is flowing water and subglacial lakes. Despite the aridity and cold temperatures, there is life on the ice, in the ice and underneath the ice.
Antarctic glaciers terminate on land or in the sea, as floating ice shelves or grounded or floating outlet glaciers. The Antarctic Ice Sheet contains 25,400,000 km3 of ice, which, if it melted, would be equivalent to a sea level rise of 58 m. The ice sheet is over 4000 m thick in places, and in places, the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is grounded more than 1500 m below sea level. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was at Vostok: -89.2°C on 21st July 1983. The Dry Valleys of Antarctica are the most similar place on Earth to the desolate landscapes of the Moon and Mars.
Our Antarctica StoryMap Series provides teachers with a comprehensive body of work, with a scheme of work and a teaching guide, to introduce Antarctica, its people, its wildlife and its response to climate change, in the classroom. Check out these free educational resources here.
Patagonian and British-Irish Ice Sheets
The Patagonian Ice Sheet reached its maximum extent around 27,000 years ago, and had formed a long, thin ice sheet along the Patagonian Andes. The dynamics of the ice sheet are closely related to the ocean currents and Southern Westerly Winds, and so the dynamics of this long, thin ice sheet can tell us about past climate.
The British-Irish Ice Sheet reached its maximum extent also at around 27,000 years ago. The ice sheet reached the continental shelf around its northern and western margin, leaving behind landforms like drumlins, moraines and ice-dammed lakes. It had a large marine margin, similar in some ways to Antarctica today.
Geography resources for school students
This website aims to introduce some key concepts in Antarctic glaciology and glacial landscapes and systems more broadly. The Geography Students section includes a detailed compilation of Resources for Teachers. You can also investigate Antarctica through our Antarctica StoryMap Series.
Pages that are particularly relevant to the post-16 education and the UK A-Level curriculum are highlighted with a yellow flash.
These relevant ideas are explored in our Science Themes, and include descriptions of different types of glacier, ice shelves, and ice streams. This website also explores the recent rapid environmental changes happening today in Antarctica, and how changes in atmospheric and ocean temperatures has led to ice-shelf collapse, rapid glacier recession and sea level rise.
Click through each of the Science Themes on the website to discover more about Antarctic glaciers. Italicised words are defined in the Glossary. Alternatively, ask a me a question through twitter (@Antarcticglacie) or Ask a Scientist!
The Greenland Ice Sheet
In 2022, Bethan Davies was awarded a Medal for Education and Communication by the Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research (SCAR) for her work in public engagement, including www.AntarcticGlaciers.org.
In 2020 Bethan Davies was awarded a “Certificate of Excellence for Geological Education” from the Geologists’ Association.
Our Antarctica StoryMap Series has been awarded a 2022 Geographical Association Silver Publishers’ Award!
The Antarctica StoryMap Series has also been Shortlisted for a 2022 ESRI ‘Community Engagement’ Award.
This website was written by Dr Bethan Davies from Newcastle University as part of an ongoing commitment to education, outreach and impact.
The views I express here are mine alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of my employers.
Co-authors include Dr Jacob Bendle, also from Royal Holloway, who is an expert in the Patagonian Ice Sheet, Dr Andy Emery, from Leeds University, who is an expert in the British Ice Sheet, Laura Boyall and Holly Jenkins, both recent graduates from the Masters in Quaternary Science at Royal Holloway. We also have guest contributions from others. For more information on authors, see the About page.
- Ice cores
- Resources for Teachers
- Pine Island Glacier
- Glacier Flow
- British-Irish Ice Sheet
- Ice shelf collapse
- PATICE and the Patagonian Ice Sheet
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We acknowledge funding from the Quaternary Research Association, Scientific Committee for Antarctic Research, Royal Holloway University of London, the British Society for Geomorphology, the Antarctic Science Bursary, the Geologists’ Association and the International Association of Sedimentologists. For more information, see the About page.
1. Lythe, M.B., Vaughan, D.G., and the BEDMAP Consortium. 2001. BEDMAP: a new ice thickness and subglacial topographical model of Antarctica. Journal of Geophysical Research, 2001. 106(B6): p. 11335-11351.