Where Is the Antarctic?
The Antarctic is a term that is used to refer to the Earth's southernmost region - the area south of the Antarctic Circle, which lies at latitude 66° 33′ 39″. Within this region, is the continent of Antarctica, the South Pole, and the Southern Ocean. The Southern Ocean was designated in 2000 as the ocean around Antarctica, and extends from Antarctica to 60 degrees south latitude.
What Is the Antarctic Like?
The Antarctic is a very cold region. Temperatures as low as -128.6 degrees F have been recorded there (Source: National Geographic). There is also very little rainfall - in fact, Antarctica is considered the world's largest desert. Antarctica is covered in sheets of ice so large that it contains 85% of the world's ice (source: WHOI).
The Antarctic region can experience extremes in daylight - during some seasons, the sun may not set, and during others, the sun may not rise. On the Antarctic Circle, this occurs during the December solstice (on this day, the sun doesn't set) and the June solstice (on this day, the sun doesn't rise).
Through the waters around Antarctica, the Antarctic Circumpolar Current - the world's largest wind-driven current - flows, transporting a huge volume of cold water and creating rough seas. This current is the only one that flows unobstructed around the Earth, and connects the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. This current can affect the climate worldwide (see more on this here).
Antarctic Marine Life
According to the U.S. Department of State, "Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest, and most isolated continent on Earth." Despite this uninviting description, many types of marine life thrive in this region.
Marine life that live in the Antarctic region include:
- Emperor and Adélie penquins
- Plankton (zooplankton and phytoplankton)
Unlike the Arctic, there are no plants or trees in Antarctica. There aren't any land mammals, either - there are no polar bears here.
Life in Antarctica depends on tiny creatures - plankton. During the winter, less sunlight and cold temperatures result in more ice. Ice covers Antarctica and much of the ocean around it. But it's not a totally barren place - algae are trapped in the ice and live on its edges. Krill huddle under the ice and feed on the algae. When spring comes, the ice begins to melt, and the algae (phytoplankton) thrive in the sunnier, nutrient-rich conditions. Then there is a big phytoplankton "bloom," resulting in even more food for the krill, whose population also explodes. The krill become food for a variety of larger marine life, including penguins, seals, and even whales. You can learn more about this cycle, and view graphics, on the WHOI web site here.
There are lots of marine life in the Antarctic, especially in the warmer seasons, but do any humans live here? The short answer is yes, although humans are here only temporarily.
Antarctica is not owned by any country, and does not have a government. The first person to cross the Antarctic Circle was James Cook in January 1773, but the continent of Antarctica was not discovered until 1821, during an expedition of American explorers led by Captain John Davis.
In December 1911, Norwegian Roald Amundsen became the first person to reach the South Pole. As more people were visiting Antarctica, a treated was developed to guide its exploration and research. In 1959, the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 12 countries (today, 50 have signed-on), who agreed that Antarctica "should be used for peaceful purposes only" and that countries would cooperate on scientific study in Antarctica, and information exchange.
In 1991, the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty was signed. This protocol designated Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.” It also required countries to clean up waste that resulted from human activities (read more about that below).
Today, Antarctica is home to about 100 scientific research stations and camps set up by a number of countries, and is also visited by thousands of tourists annually. To see a list of research facilities, click here - scroll down toward the bottom of the page, where you'll see "View the current list of Antarctic Facilities here."
The Antarctic Region and Conservation
Even this remote place has conservation challenges. Waste left behind by expeditions and scientific research stations needs to be cleaned-up - some countries working on this are Australia, the United States, and the UK.
Climate change, and its effects on the amount of ice in the Antarctic would also affect this region and its inhabitants.
References and Further Information
- Antarctica: the World's Last Great Wilderness. The Royal Geographical Society. Accessed January 31, 2013.
- Antarctica (Discovery News)
- Palmer Station Antarctica
- Roach, John. 2003. Antarctica Desert Rich With Insights Into Life on the Edge. National Geographic News. Accessed January 31, 2013.
- Royal, Jo. 2010. Opinion: Antarctic Trash Led to Mission to Clean Up the Planet. Accessed January 31, 2013.
- Secretariat of the Antarctic Treaty (Web Site)
- Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Antarctica: The Frozen Continent. Accessed January 28, 2013.
- Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Compare the Poles. Accessed January 28, 2013.