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Antarctica—The Last Frontier

Antarctica—The Last Frontier

 Antarctica—The Last Frontier


PARTS of Antarctica can get so cold, says one writer, that “if you drop a steel bar it is likely to shatter like glass, . . . and if you haul up a fish through a hole in the ice within five seconds it is frozen . . . solid.” Because of its extreme conditions and its surreal, naked beauty—at times complemented by breathtaking displays of the southern lights—Antarctica could pass for another world.

But Antarctica is very much a part of this world. In fact, it has been likened to a vast natural laboratory for studying the earth and its atmosphere as well as global environmental changes, including those related to human activities. It is in relation to these studies that scientists are becoming increasingly concerned. They have observed ominous new phenomena in the South Polar Regions, and these suggest that all is not well. But first, let us see why Antarctica is a unique continent.

To begin with, Antarctica—the most isolated continent in the world—is a continent of contradictions. It is supremely beautiful and pristine but brutally inhospitable. It is the windiest, coldest place on earth, yet it is singularly delicate and sensitive. It has less precipitation than any other continent, but its ice represents 70 percent of the planet’s fresh water. With an average thickness of some 7,100 feet [2,200 m], the ice makes Antarctica earth’s highest continent, averaging 7,500 feet [2,300 m] above sea level. It is also earth’s fifth-largest continent, yet Antarctica has no permanent residents larger than a half-inch [1 cm] wingless midge, a type of fly.

Like Visiting Mars!

As you venture into Antarctica’s interior, you see fewer and fewer signs of life, especially when you reach the areas called dry valleys. Covering some 1,000 square miles [3,000 sq km], these polar deserts are mostly set high in the Transantarctic Mountains—a chain of ranges spanning the continent and rising in places to over 14,000 feet [4,300 m]. Icy gales whistle through the dry valleys and quickly whip away any snow that might fall. Scientists believe these valleys to be the nearest earthly equivalent to the surface of Mars. Hence, they were deemed a suitable venue for testing space equipment before launching the Viking mission to Mars.

Yet, even the dry valleys host life! Inside porous rocks, in tiny air pockets, live exceptionally hardy forms of bacteria, algae, and fungi. They survive on the barest trace of moisture. Outside, their surreal world is one of stark rock formations called ventifacts, whose bizarre shape and high sheen are the result of countless centuries of Antarctica’s unremitting winds.

Named Before It Was Discovered

Speculation about a giant southern landmass goes way back to the ancient Greek philosophers. Aristotle, for one, postulated the need for a southern continent to counterbalance lands known to exist in the Northern Hemisphere. The book Antarctica—Great Stories From the Frozen Continent says that “as the northern hemisphere lay under the constellation of Arktos, the Bear, so, Aristotle (384-322 BC) reasoned, the unknown land to the south must be Antarktikos—in other words, the  total opposite”—or the antipode. So Antarctica enjoys the distinction of being named, in effect, some 2,000 years before it was discovered!

In 1772, British explorer Captain James Cook sailed south in search of this postulated southern continent. He entered a world of windswept islands and huge icebergs, or “ice islands,” as he called them. “Some of them,” he wrote, were “near two miles [about three kilometers] in circuit and 60 feet [20 m] high, and yet the sea broke quite over them, such was the force and the weight of the waves.” Determined, Cook continued south, and on January 17, 1773, his ship, the Resolution, and its companion, the Adventure, were the first vessels known to cross the Antarctic Circle. Cook doggedly navigated his way through the pack ice until eventually he was blocked. “I could see nothing to the southward but ice,” he wrote in his log. He was, in fact, just 75 miles [120 km] from Antarctic soil when he turned back.

So who first saw Antarctica? Indeed, who first set foot on it? To this day nobody is sure. It may even have been whalers or seal hunters, for when Cook returned home, his reports of an abundance of seals, penguins, and whales sent hunters scrambling to this region.

Blood on the Ice

Cook “stumbled upon what was probably the largest congregation of wildlife that existed  in the world, and he was the first man to let the world know of its existence,” wrote Alan Moorehead in his book The Fatal Impact. “For the Antarctic animals,” says Moorehead, “[the result] was a holocaust.” The book Antarctica—Great Stories From the Frozen Continent states: “Towards the end of the eighteenth century, sealing in the southern hemisphere took on all the appearances of a gold rush. The insatiable demands from China and Europe for skins soon cleared all the [previously] known sealing grounds leaving sealers desperate to find new land with unplundered rookeries.”

After the sealers had all but killed off their livelihood, whalers began plundering the seas. “No one will ever know how many whales and seals were killed in the southern ocean,” writes Moorehead. “Was it ten million or fifty million? Figures become meaningless; the killing went on and on until there was virtually nothing left to kill.”

Nowadays, however, international laws protect all Antarctic flora and fauna. Additionally, an absence of land predators combined with a bountiful marine food supply make the Antarctic coast a summer haven for wildlife. But Antarctica shows signs of a more insidious assault, one that may be beyond the reach of international agreements.

 [Box on page 15]


Though they have similarities, the North Pole and the South Pole are ‘poles apart’ in more ways than location. Consider the following.

The immediate North Pole region is all ice and sea, whereas the South Pole is near the center of earth’s fifth-largest continent.

The North Pole is hemmed in by the populated landmasses of America, Asia, and Europe, whereas Antarctica is surrounded by a vast ocean, indeed, the most tempestuous one on the planet.

Tens of thousands of families live within the Arctic Circle, which is also home to thousands of plants and animals. However, not one human calls Antarctica home. The only indigenous life forms are algae, bacteria, mosses, lichens, two species of flowering plants, and a few species of insects.

“Antarctica has been called the pulsating continent,” says the Encyclopædia Britannica, “because of the annual buildup and retreat of its secondary ice-fronted coastline.” At its peak, the ice pack expands up to 1,000 miles [1,600 km] out to sea. This expansion and contraction is six times that of the Arctic ice pack, giving Antarctica a greater influence on global weather.

[Map on page 15]

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Drake Passage

James Ross Island

Larsen Ice Shelf


Ronne Ice Shelf

Vinson Massif (the tallest mountain, 16,066 feet)

Ross Ice Shelf

Mt. Erebus (an active volcano)


South Pole

The lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was in Antarctica —minus 128.6 degrees Fahrenheit [minus 89.2 C.]

0 500 km 500 miles

[Credit Line]

U.S. Geological Survey

[Picture on page 16, 17]

Chinstrap penguins gather on a rare blue iceberg

[Credit Line]

© 2000 Mark J. Thomas/Dembinsky Photo Assoc., Inc.

[Picture on page 17]

A humpback whale

[Picture on page 17]

Southern elephant seals

[Picture on page 17]

At the South Pole

[Credit Line]

Photo: Commander John Bortniak, NOAA Corps

[Picture on page 17]

The Ross Ice Shelf

[Credit Line]

Michael Van Woert, NOAA NESDIS, ORA