Map of the AntarcticClick to enlarge
Man has been fascinated by this vast ice landscape ever since its discovery.
Source: Dorling Kindersley RF / Thinkstock

"Imagine a country as large as Australia and Europe together, sunnier than California but colder than the icebox of a refrigerator, dryer than Arabia and higher than Switzerland, emptier than the Sahara. There is only one place in the world that fits this description: Antarctica — this strange but beautiful continent in the lowest part of the Earth." (J. M. Dukert)

Extreme conditions at the southern end of the world

The Antarctic includes the continent itself and the surrounding Antarctic Ocean. Enormous icebergs and penguins are the images which the region evokes, but there is far more to the place referred to as the 'Earth's last wilderness'. The vast area around the South Pole is a region full of extremes and one which breaks a number of records:

The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest contiguous ice mass in the world. Only about two percent of the continent is ice-free. The thickness of the ice ranges between 0 and nearly 5,000 metres.

The Don Juan Pond in the west end of Wright Valley in Victoria Land has a salinity level of over 40%, making it the saltiest waterbody on Earth.

At the South Pole itself, the sun does not set from late September through late March. There are six months of polar day and polar night each in Antarctica, which is why there are only two seasons: summer and winter.

Antarctica is the continent with the highest average terrain elevation, an average of 2,500 metres. However, the Bentley Subglacial Trench in West Antarctica is also the lowest point on the surface of the earth not covered by ocean – nearly 2,500 metres deep.

The lowest recorded temperature – minus 89.2 degrees Celsius – was measured at the Russian station Vostok in July 1983. There are also strong katabatic, or fall winds in Antarctica, which reach speeds of up to 300 km/h.

Mount Erebus on Ross Island is the world's southernmost active volcano. There are even hot springs on Deception Island.

The high terrain elevation, extremely low temperatures and correspondingly low levels of precipitation also make Antarctica the driest region – and largest desert – in the world.

Despite the harsh environment the Antarctic Ocean and its coastal regions are teeming with life which has adapted to the extreme conditions.

Did you know . . . ?

What are the origins of the word 'Antarctica'?

The Arctic region derives its name from the northern constellation Ursa Major (Greek: arktos). The word "Ant-arctica" is meant to refer to the antipodal region of the Arctic, that which lies on its "other" side.

What are the differences between the Arctic and the Antarctic?

Antarctica is a continent covered by ice and surrounded by ocean (Antarctic Ocean). The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents on which there is a sheet of multi-year ice several metres thick.

The average temperature of minus 50 degrees Celsius at the South Pole makes it quite a bit colder than the North Pole, where the average temperature is minus 18 degrees Celsius.

There is no indigenous population iPenguins live in the Antarctic.

Polar bears are only found in the Arctic.n the Antarctic such as the Inuit in the Arctic.

What is the difference between our summer and the austral summer?

The different seasons which prevail on earth are caused by the ecliptic plane, or the Earth's axial tilt of 23.5 degrees in its orbit around the sun. During the austral summer (November to March, wintertime in the northern hemisphere), the South Pole is inclined towards the sun and there is 24 hours of daylight. The South Pole is tilted away from the sun in the austral winter (summer in the northern hemisphere) and there is total darkness for up to 24 hours.

Gentoo penguins thrive especially well along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Gentoo penguins thrive especially well along the Antarctic Peninsula.
Source: Fritz Hertel/UBA