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Antarctica as a whole is the coldest continent on the Earth. The continent covers over 14 million sq km making it 1.5 times the size of the USA. Antartica occupies approximately 9% of the world's land surface. It is divided into two large regions called Greater Antarctica to the east and Lesser Antarctica to the west, although every direction leading from the south pole is actually north. See the South African Antarctic Pages.

map of Antartica


Antarctica contains over 70% of the world's water and 90% of the world's ice, within itself. In some places the ice is over 4000 metres deep. The ice flows continuously from the high elevations to the sea, breaking off to form massive icebergs. The amount of precipitation in Antarctica is so small that it is classed as a desert region (polar desert). The landmass of Antarctica beneath the ice has a relatively high elevation, on average about twice as high as that of Europe. Antarctica contains many buried, or sub-glacial, freshwater lakes that are connected by a network of rivers which move water far beneath the surface of the continent. These lakes have been sealed for millions of years.

Antarctica is surrounded by a number of islands called the sub-Antarctic islands, which are grouped, along with Antarctica, into the sub-Antarctic circle. These include the South Orkney Islands, the South Georgia Islands, Elephant Island, Campbell Island, Macquarie Island, and many others.

Antarctica has six months of daylight and six months of darkness. In mid-summer, near the south pole, there is 24 hours of sunlight every day. In winter, six months of darkness ensue, and the continent triples in size by converting the surrounding sea into ice.

Wildlife is prevelant around the coast of Antarctica but is quite rare near the centre of the continent. The mixing of warmer waters from the northerly latitudes and the icy currents of Antarctica thrusts plankton, algae and other micro-organisms from below the ocean to the surface, feeding billions of Antarctic krill which, in turn, feed and support 65 million penguins, 35 million seals, and more than 125 different species of fish and whale.

Wild Life
Wild Life

Antarctica is characterised by gusting winds, known as katabatics, which may last for a few minutes, or for a few days, and can reach up to 200 mph in velocity. Flat stretches of terrain are often covered by rolling, wind-driven waves of frozen snow and ice called sastrugi. Blizzards can cause visibility on the ground to drop to zero, known as a "whiteout", and explorers have been known to get lost and freeze to death while only meters away from their tents.

The landscape can produce strange lighting effects owing to the prismatic and refractive qualities of ice crystals, making for extraordinarily beautiful dawns and sunsets near the mountain ranges, of which there are many. In West Antartica is the Ellesworth Mountain range where Vinson Massif, the highest peak, rises to a height of 16,066 feet. West Antactica also contains a trio of peaks named Faith, Hope and Charity, called the Eternity Range, while the Transantarctic Mountain range traverses the continent from top to bottom.

The South Pole is one of the coldest places on Earth. It is over 1200 km via the shortest route to the coast of Antarctica. The ice at the South Pole is 3 km in thickness, with the Antarctic landmass lying beneath it. The average summer season temperature is -40°C, and temperatures as low as -80°C have been recorded in the winter months. Winds can lower the temperature by as much as 10°C.

The geographic South Pole is resurveyed every year. Each year its position is marked by a (rather disappointing!) piece of copper pipe with an engraved brass head-piece. The position of the South Pole appears to shift by 8m each year due to the movement of the huge icemass on which it is situated. In the picture above the previous year's "old" South Pole position can be seen to the left of the flag mast.

There is also a "Ceremonial South Pole" which is marked by a bright red and white striped pole with a shiny silver dome on top of it. Flags of all the nations which have reached the South Pole are displayed around it. This is normally used by VIP visitors as a photographic back-drop. It is situated 100m from the real South Pole and is not moved every year!

The American Amundsen-Scott South Pole Base is manned throughout the year and is 200m from the actual South Pole, which was first reached by Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, in 1911. The base is characterised by its silver aluminium dome, built in 1975, which houses the main buildings. The population of the base varies from up to 120 men and women in the Austral summer season, to around 20 people in the winter season. Diverse studies are conducted at the base, including the monitoring of seismic activity around the world and the tracking of satellites in polar orbit. The only means of transportation to the base at the moment is via specially adapted C120 Hercules planes. The "runway" at the South Pole is reconstructed at the start of each summer season by tightly packing a 2km strip of snow and using black flags to mark the edges of the airstrip. Flights are only made during the summer (daylight) months from September to March each year.

The United States also maintains a base at McMurdo Station, on the Hut Point peninsula, at the southern point of Ross Island. New Zealand also maintains a base here called Scott Base.

South Africa has a meteorological base at Vesleskarvet in Queen Maud Land called SANAE IV. The base is constructed on a rocky outcrop, called a nunatak.

Russia maintains a base, which was built in 1957, at Lake Vostok, which is located at the center of the continent. The lowest temperatures on earth have been recorded near here. Lake Vostok is a frozen fresh-water lake said to be millions of years old. The lake is approximately 150 miles long and 25 miles wide, and is estimated to be about 1 mile deep. Soviet scientists are currently attempting to drill the ice to obtain a sample of the sub-glacial lake water going back 400,000 years, and to search for signs of life in the ancient water. Lake Vostok is also at the very center of the earth's geomagnetic field. Russia maintains another base on the north coast of Antartica called Mirnyy.

A Japanese scientific research station called Syowa was established in 1957 on East Ongul Island, Lutzow-Holme Bay, East Antarctica. Another station called Asuka, was established in 1984 on the ice shelf north of the Sor-Rondane mountains, where experiments in geomorphology, glaciology, geology and biology are carried out. See JARE.

In addition to these nations, bases are also maintained on Antarctica by Argentina, Australia, Belgium, France, Great Britain, and Norway, and there are about sixty-five research stations on the continent, not all of them permanently manned.

Natural resource exploitation is not allowed in the Antarctic, according to a treaty signed by 12 nations in 1959, although the continent is said to contain vast amounts of minerals, including gold, nickel, platinum, uranium and chromium, as well as huge oil and gas reserves. The dense sheet of ice covering the continent also precludes mining and other such operations. Although meteorology and scientific research is permitted, the continent is protected by the Antarctica International Treaty from commercial exploitation of it's resources. There are currently 42 signatories to the Antarctica treaty.

South Pole History
History and Expeditions

James Cook discovered the Antarctic islands of South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands in 1775. He was already famous for the discovery of New Zealand and Australia in 1770 on behalf of the British Empire. In 1819, Alexander I, the Czar of Russia, authorised Fabien Gottlieb von Bellingshausen to lead an expedition to the Antartic region with two ships. The Vostok was a 600 ton corvette and the Mirnyi was a supply ship. A total of 117 men, sailed on the two ships. The Vostok came within twenty miles of the Antarctic mainland and Bellingshausen went on to circumnavigate the continenent in a voyage lasting two years and 21 days.

James Clark Ross led another expedition in 1841 on two specially constructed ships named Erebus and Terror. After forcing their ships through the ice-pack, they reached the Ross sea, and a two day voyage brought them to the mainland, where they encountered an 8000 foot high mountain range, which Ross christened the Admiralty range. He was then within 500 miles of the magnetic south pole. Ross discovered and named an active volcano, Mt Erebus, and it's smaller, extinct, companion Mt Terror, situated in the centre of Ross Island.

Mt Erebus is one of the few volcanoes on earth that has a lava lake that has endured for several decades. It erupts quite frequently, spewing lava and ash, the last eruption occurred in 2004. Another volcano exists at crescent-shaped Deception Island, the shape having been caused by the collapse of the volcano's caldera. Ross also went on to discover the huge ice formation known as the the Ross Ice Shelf.

Mt Erebus was climbed in 1908 by members of Ernest Shackleton's first expedition to Antarctica.

Nobu Shirase was a Japanese lieutenant who reached the coast of Antarctica in 1911, but bad weather made a landing impossible. He tried again in 1912 and disembarked on the Ross Ice Shelf. His expedition also reached the foot of the Alexandra mountain range in King Edward VII Land.

Shackleton returned in 1914 in an ambitious attempt to cross the continent. See the account of Ernest Shackleton's 2nd expedition.

Adrien de Gerlache, a Belgian, reached the coast of Graham Land in 1898, naming the Belgica strait after his ship. This was later renamed Gerlach Strait in his honor. One of the men who sailed with de Gerlache was a Norwegian volunteer called Roald Amundsen.

In 1909 the news around the world was that the North Pole had been reached. The race was on to be the first to reach the geographical South Pole. Amundsen secretly arranged an expedition to reach the South Pole with his ship Fram. After four months they reached the Ross Ice Shelf and from there struck inland. Amundsen encountered a high mountain range, just 340 miles from the pole, which he named the Queen Maud Range, after the Queen of Norway. On December 14, 1911 the South Pole was reached where Amundsen erected a tent which flew the Norwegian flag. He had beaten the explorer Robert Scott to the pole by just one month.

In 1928, an American, Richard E. Byrd, established his camp, Little America, on the ice off of Antartica's shoreline, and flew over the south pole by aeroplane. He was later made an Admiral by an Act of Congress for his efforts, and Admiral Byrd spent many years mapping the continent of Antarctica. In 1934 he spent several months alone on the continent, flying geographical reconnaisance missions. His fifth and last expedition took place in 1955 when Byrd was in his late sixties. No one man ever did more to map the vast expanses of Antarctica.

In 1990, a six-man international team completed the crossing of the Antartica continent on foot, from King George Island past the South Pole to the coastal Russian base of Mirnyy in only 220 days, using dogs, sleds and ski's, a distance of over 3,700 miles. See the Map of the Trans-Antartica Expedition.

About 60,000 tourists have visited Antarctica since 1957. Tourism has increased from 800 per year in 1985 to about 10,000 per year in 2004. Visitors travelling from ports in Tierra del Fuego, South America, reach the Antarctic Peninsula region in about two days.

The large Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets cover 10% of the Earth's land area, and Antarctica plays an important role in the weather patterns of the earth. Sunlight is reflected by the shiny ice-sheet of the continent back into space, while a large bank of cold air lies above the continent, influencing wind and climactic conditions for thousands of miles. See the National Snow and Ice Data Center for current information about Antarctica icebergs and ice shelfs.

A US space agency (Nasa) satellite, ICESat, launched in 2003, has the primary mission goal of measuring the continental ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland using a laser altimeter.

Ancient stories abound with tales of lost continent's such as Atlantis, and many people speculate about what may lie undiscovered beneath the deep ice mantle of Antarctica. How did 15th century cartographers manage to map the actual coastline of Antarctica which exists beneath the ice, when 20th century cartographers could only achieve this thirty years ago by seismographic means? What other secrets could Antarctica hold ?

Myths and Legends
Myths and Legends

Evidence of a 'lost world': Antarctica yields two unknown dinosaur species

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