Our planet has a lot of mysterious places that are not fully studied. The South Pole, spread at 90-degree south latitude, is one of them. It is the remoteness and incredible cold that make Antarctica one of the places we really know almost nothing about. It is a huge icy desert full of secrets. The climate there is so harsh that if you drop a piece of hard steel on the icy surface, it will easily break into pieces. It is one of the main reasons people cannot live here. However, the continent cannot be considered entirely uninhabitable. Let’s open the curtain and find out more about this amazing corner of the Earth.
How was the South Pole discovered?
The suggestions of the continent existing in this part of the globe were expressed long before researchers actually managed to penetrate directly into the high latitudes of the Southern Hemisphere. Sailors from different countries kept trying to discover more and more parts of the coast of Antarctica, but no one landed on its shores until the end of the XIX century. Today, there is a lot of debate about who discovered the sixth continent. The response depends on who you ask it about.
The Russians believe that the honor of discovering the continent belongs to the Bellingshausen and Lazarev expedition (January 1820), while the British are sure that Antarctica was discovered by Edward Bransfield (January 1820). The Americans will say it is Nathaniel Palmer who discovered the new land (November 1820). But all these travelers only saw the outlines of the South Pole and endless mountains of ice. They all failed to land on the shore. The Frenchman Dumont d’Urville was the first to manage to leave a flag of his country there. Though, it turned out later, it happened on one island and not on a large piece of land. The Dutch have their own answer to the question of who discovered Antarctica and believe it was captain Dirk Geeritz in 1559. And the first person to set foot on Antarctica was American John Davis in 1821.
Nowadays, Antarctica remains the only territory in the world with no government. Nobody owns it, actually. Many countries were trying to control these lands. But in 1961, an agreement was reached that gives Antarctica the exclusive right of being the only region on the Earth that does not belong to any country.
This is the only place with no time zones. The scientific community ihere usually adheres to the time associated with their countries of permanent residence. Here you can go through all known time zones in a few minutes.
Main geographical characteristics
Antarctica is an amazing continent located opposite the Arctic. Its central part is the geographical center of the south of the Earth. The southernmost continent of the planet is washed simultaneously by three of the five oceans – the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific. Geographers and travelers call them the Southern Ocean.
The continent consists of two parts – East and West Antarctica. East Antarctica covers nearly 3 million square miles (most of the continent), and is a highland fully covered with ice. West part spreads for 2.6 million square miles and includes an archipelago of mountainous islands, each wrapped by ice. These two parts border along the Transantarctic mountains. The average height of the chain is 4500 meters.
Due to the extremely harsh climate, Antarctica is often called the continent of eternal cold. It is explained not only by the location of the continent in the Arctic Circle, but also by the influence of climatic factors.
Solar energy reaches its peak in summer when the polar day is on. However, the surface of Antarctica is not heated at all. It happens because almost 90% of sun rays get reflected by the icy white surface of the continent back into space. In winter, when the polar night comes, solar energy is almost non-existent, and the average temperature then drops to -76 °F.
The seasons are swapped in the southern hemisphere – traditional winter months are warm and the summer months are cold. Antarctic summer lasts from December to February. During this time, the temperature in the depths of the continent rises to -22˚F. Only on the coast the temperature is a bit higher.
In winter, from June to August, the temperature in the mainland decreases to an average of -58˚F and even -103˚F.
Constant cold heavy air creates an area of high atmospheric pressure with descending flows over Antarctica. From the ice dome in the center of the mainland, masses of cold heavy air flow to the edges, forming very strong stock winds. The Antarctic air masses that form there are not only very cold, but also amazingly transparent and dry. These factors contribute to further cooling of the surface.
Severe winter storms (with wind speeds up to 185 mph) completely disrupt communication with the stations for 8 months. At this time, planes cannot reach the coast and most researchers go home until the next favorable season. Those who decide to stay here should rely only on their own strength.
Another impressive fact about this continent is the sharp contrast between the dry climate and water supply here. It contains 70 percent of all freshwater on the planet. But it remains the driest place at the same time. Even the hottest deserts in the world see more rain than the Dry Valleys located in Antarctica. In fact, the entire South Pole receives less than 10 cm of rain per year.
The continent is divided into Antarctic and subantarctic climate zones.
Global warming and Antarctica
For many years, scientists thought that the South Pole remained unchangeably cold, despite the fact that other continents were gradually getting warmer. Researchers from New Zealand, the UK and the US analyzed weather station data over 60 years and used computer simulations to show that this was not the case and to determine the cause of the rise in temperature.
Scientists have found that rising temperatures in the western Pacific Ocean, which have been going on for decades, have lowered atmospheric pressure over the Weddell Sea in the Southern Ocean. This, in turn, increased the flow of warm air directly above the South Pole – and heated it since 1989 by more than 35.29 ⁰F.
According to researchers, natural warming was most likely exacerbated by greenhouse gas emissions and indicates the impact of carbon emissions on the South Pole.
The data show that the South Pole is warming at a rate of 0.6 ⁰C in ten years, while the rest of the planet is three times slower (32.36 ⁰F / 10 years).
Note that 90 percent of all ice available on the planet is concentrated in the South Pole. And the ice layer in Antarctica reaches almost 7,000 feet. If all the ice in Antarctica could melt down, it would raise the sea level by 200 feet in the whole world.
The melting process of Antarctica is unlikely in the 21st century. The ice cover may even increase a little in the coming years. However, there risk of melting remains in the coming centuries, especially if people fail to slow down the process of global warming.
However, scientists regularly report about icebergs being broken off Antarctic coasts. In May 2021, the European Space Agency (ESA) informed about creation of the largest iceberg in the world. It is 1667 square miles – 105 miles long and 15.5 miles wide. This size makes the iceberg slightly larger than the island of Mallorca.
Flora and Fauna
The world of plants and animals is not rich, but quite unique here. Life is mainly concentrated in the so-called oases. Antarctic oases include occasional areas on the edges of the mainland that manage to warm up a bit and get rid of ice cover for a short period of time. Therefore, only here you can find up to 300 species of lichens, 75 species of mosses, mushrooms and even flowering plants.
The fauna is connected with the sea and is concentrated on the coast and coastal islands. It is represented by several species of birds and Antarctic seals. The snow petrel is one of only three species of birds that breed only in Antarctica. There are several species of penguins in Antarctica.
South Pole population
Antarctica is the only continent without native population. There are no permanent residents in this region. The only people who come to stay here for some time belong to temporary scientific expeditions. In warmer months, there are a maximum 5,000 scientists here, while in winter time, their quantity reduces to 1,000 people. Science stations on this severe continent are working on a variety of tasks, from studying the global climate to testing equipment before sending it to other planets. There is a strict selection of candidates. It is both health and psychological resilience. By the way, to work at a station in Antarctica, you need to remove the appendix and wisdom teeth.
Antarctica remains the most isolated continent on the planet, and a trip to the polar south still needs to be carefully planned. People can reach it by a long and inconvenient sea trip or an expensive flight. Every South Pole guest completely depends on the extreme weather. It is interesting, but this harsh place is still popular – over 40 thousand tourists from all continents visit it every year. They come to this region to travel by sea around the south pole of the planet, to explore scientific bases and take unique photos.