From historical research, it was discovered that Antarctica emerges from early Western theories of a vast continent, known as Terra Australis, believed to exist in the far south of the globe. The term Antarctic, referring to the opposite of the Arctic Circle, was coined by Marinus of Tyre in the 2nd century AD.

The rounding of the cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn in the 15th and 16th centuries proved that Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”), if it existed, was a continent in its own right. In 1773 James Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle for the first time but although they discovered nearby islands, they did not catch sight of Antarctica itself. It is believed he was as close as 240 km (150 mi) from the mainland.

On 27 January 1820, a Russian expedition led by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev discovered an ice shelf at Princess Martha Coast that later became known as the Fimbul Ice Shelf. Bellingshausen and Lazarev became the first explorers to see and officially discover the land of the continent of Antarctica. Three days later, on 30 January 1820, a British expedition captained by Irishman Edward Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula Trinity Peninsula, and ten months later an American sealer Nathaniel Palmer sighted Antarctica on 17 November 1820. The first landing was probably just over a year later when American Captain John Davis, a sealer, set foot on the ice.

Several expeditions attempted to reach the South Pole in the early 20th century, during the “Heoric Age of Antartic Exploration”. Many resulted in injury and death. Norwegian Ronald Amundsen finally reached the Pole on 13 December 1911, following a dramatic race with the Briton Robert Robert.

1.According to size, Antarctica is the fifth largest continent of our planet. The continent is almost double the size of Australia!

Antarctica Map by Nasa
Antarctica Map by NASA

2. Antarctica is an ice covered continent surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Almost all of the continent’s land is covered by a thick layer of ice. On average the ice is 1.9 km/6,200 ft deep. The inland ice-sheet has a thickness of up to 4 km/13,000 ft.

3. Antarctica is the driest continent of the seven continents. Antarctica is an icy desert with very little rainfall throughout the year.

Antarctica ice with penguins and clear blue sky

Antarctica is the windiest place on the earth where windspeed of more than 350 kilometres per hour/218 miles per hour have been measured.

4. Antarctica is the least populated continent. There are no residents living permanently here. Only around 1,000 people (in winter) and 10,000 people (in summer) live on the continent. These people are mainly based there for one year to live and work in the research stations. The research stations are scattered all around the continent.

5. The Antarctic Treaty which came into force in 1961 is now signed by 53 countries. The treaty regulates the international relations between all countries to support scientific operations on the ice. Article 1 of the Antarctic Treaty states that ‘The area is to be used for peaceful purposes only’. According to the Antarctic Treaty, Antarctica refers to the land and ice shelves from 60 degrees south of the equator.

Research station in Antarctica

6. There are 18 countries who regularly send scientists and researchers to the various stations on the continent. The most and biggest stations are held by the USA, Russia, Chile, Argentina and Australia. The largest research station is McMurdo station, which is an research centre. There more than 1,000 scientists work on various research projects during summertime.

7. Highest continent: Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all continents. Most of the continent is higher than 3,000 m/9,900 ft. above sea level. The highest mountain on Antarctica is Mount Vinson at 4,900 metres/16,000 ft.

Explorer on Mount Vinson

8. Antarctica Facts – Flora: The few areas where there is no or only little ice throughout the year are located in the most northern parts of the continent. There one will find also the typical Tundra vegetation. Typical Tundra plants are small scrubs, grasses and mosses.

9. Antarctica Facts – Fauna/Wildlife: There are not many species living on the Antarctic continent. Whales, and seals live in the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica. The Emperor penguins are the only penguin species breeding on Antarctica.

Emperor Penguins Antarctica Facts

Emperor Penguins

Emperor penguins are the tallest and heaviest of all penguin species. They grow to over 120 cm/48 inches in height and weigh up to 45 kg/100 lb. These penguins feed on krill, fish and squid. The penguin colonies on Antarctica usually contain thousands of penguins. On Antarctica there are about 5 million penguins!

10. Antarctica Climate – Coldest Place: Antarctica is the coldest continent of our planet. The coldest air temperature ever measured in Antarctica was -89.2°C /-128.6 °F at Vostok Station in 1983. Along the Antarctic coast, the average temperature is -10°C /14 °F. The coastline has the warmest climate of the continent.

11. The geographic South Pole is located more than 1,235 km/767 miles from the coast on a plateau 2,800 metres/9,100 ft. above sea level.

Antarctica South Pole

South Pole

The Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is located next to the geographic south pole, as you can see in the image above.

12. Antarctica Facts – Famous explorers:

  • British explorer James Cook was the first to cross the Antarctic circle and to circumnavigate the Antarctic continent as early as 1773
  • Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole in 1911
  • British polar explorer Ernest Shackleton undertook three Antarctic explorations and was the first to cross South Georgia in Antarctica in 1916

Amundsen reaches the South Pole – image by Olav Bjaaland

13. In 1985, scientists described a huge ozone hole which grew in the atmosphere over Antarctica. It had formed in less than ten years as ozone values had sank every Springtime in the Antarctic. Man-made chemicals were destroying the ozone layer. The thinning ozone layer was understood as a warning sign. The ozone hole shows how sensitive our planet is to our activities.

14. About 40,000 tourists from around the world visit Antarctica every year on polar cruises and exploration trips.

Ecological Expedition in Antarctica – image: Joseph Sohm

Tourist attractions in Antarctica are:

  • Deception island, formerly a whaling station, is popular for its still active volcano and it’s viewpoint at Neptune’s Bellows.
  • Port Lockroy on Wince Island, where there is a Antarctic heritage centre and museum.
  • Drake Passage is a popular part of polar cruises although it is known for its rough seas. The water channel lies between South America and Antarctica.
  • Tourists will also enjoy watching the Aurora australis, the Southern Lights in the Antarctic winter between March and September.

15. Antarctica Facts: Antarctica contains more than 90% of the world’s ice and more than 90% of our planet’s fresh water.

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