November 27, 2012 1:42 pm
You are on the highest and windiest continent on Earth. It is also the coldest. Even in summer you need to wear a parka and thick gloves. Almost nothing lives here, although some penguins might waddle past on their way to the sea. You are on Antarctica.
Antarctica is a large ice-covered continent that surrounds the South Pole. The Southern (Antarctic) Ocean surrounds this frozen land.
Antarctica lies at the bottom of the southern half of the globe. Summer begins there in December and winter in June. In midsummer, the sun shines day and night. It never sets. In midwinter, the sun never rises above the horizon. It is dark day and night.
Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth. It is warmest along the coast, but you would still find it plenty cold. Summer temperatures along the coast reach the freezing point—32° Fahrenheit (0° Celsius). You don’t need ice for your lemonade. If you set it outside, it will freeze. In winter, temperatures inland fall as low as -110° Fahrenheit (-80° Celsius) in the winter.
A huge sheet of ice covers nearly all of Antarctica. At its deepest, the ice is nearly 3 miles (4.7 kilometers) thick. If Antarctica’s ice melted, the world’s oceans would rise by 200 feet (60 meters). Coastal cities around the world would be covered with water as high as a 20-story building.
Its ice cover makes Antarctica the highest of all the continents. Antarctica’s average elevation, or height, is more than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters) higher than any other continent on Earth.
High mountains rise across Antarctica, but the ice sheet covers most of them. Some mountain peaks and rocky areas poke through the ice. Some areas near the coast are also free of ice.
Antarctica’s ice is moving slowly toward the coast. Huge slabs of ice border much of Antarctica’s coastline. Sometimes, large chunks break off to form floating icebergs.
With all that snow and ice, you might think Antarctica is a really snowy place. But it isn’t. The inland part of Antarctica is one of the driest places on Earth. It gets no rain and very little snow. So how did it get such thick ice?
The ice formed over millions of years. The little snow that fell stayed, because it was too cold for the snow to melt. When new snow fell, it pressed down on the old snow below, and the deeper layers of snow slowly formed ice. The ice got thicker and thicker until it was thousands of feet deep. This process is still going on.
Antarctica’s climate is too cold and windy for almost all life. The few plants and animals live near the coast. Antarctica’s animals depend on the ocean for food. Penguins and seals spend most of their time in the ocean, but they come onto the ice to have babies. Seabirds also breed along the coast.
The ocean around Antarctica is full of animals. Whales, fish, squids, and jellyfish swim in cold Antarctic waters. The larger animals feed on the smaller animals.
Exploring Antarctica is extremely dangerous. The human body is not built for such cold. At very low temperatures, frostbite can injure skin and other tissues. Even your breath freezes. Explorers must bring all their supplies. They won’t find any food in Antarctica. They must carry and build shelters from the cold. Without proper shelter, they will die.
Antarctic blizzards make it impossible to see. The blowing snow stings when it hits the face. On overcast days, the sky, snow, and ice are the same white color. Explorers can lose all sense of direction and distance.
In the early 1900s, several explorers tried to reach the South Pole. British explorer Ernest Shackleton turned back in 1909 after running out of food. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundson won the race to the South Pole in 1911. He beat British explorer Robert Scott by five weeks. Scott died on the way back from the pole.
Today, nearly 30 countries conduct scientific research in Antarctica. Scientists study the ice and the rock beneath the ice to learn about Earth’s history. The ice also tells scientists how Earth’s climate has changed. Scientists study the plants and animals to find out how they can survive in Antarctica’s harsh climate. They also study changes in the fairly clean air over Antarctica to find out how global pollution is affecting Earth’s atmosphere. The United States has the largest Antarctic research center at McMurdo Base.
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