Antarctica is the second smallest continent after Australia. It is the coldest, windiest, highest, driest, and least populated of the continents. It receives so little precipitation that it is also the world's largest cold desert.
On the surface, Antarctica may seem very similar to the Arctic, but the two areas are, in fact, very different. The Arctic is an oceanic basin lying beneath a thin layer of ice. Antarctica is a land continent buried under a permanent ice sheet and surrounded by ocean. The ice sheet that covers almost all of Antarctica is more than a mile thick. Beneath the weight of the ice sheet, the rocky surface of Antarctica often sinks thousands of feet below sea level.
In the ocean around Antarctica is a unique zone known as the Antarctic Convergence. At this convergence, cold water meets warmer water from the north. This mix nurtures the plants and animals, such as krill, that attract whales and make these waters the most fertile and biologically productive on earth.
Components of Antarctica include the Transantarctic Mountains which run across the continent from north to south and a flat central portion called the Polar Plateau. Surrounding the whole continent is a vast, floating sheet of ice. In the winter, this sea ice extends for 7,300,000 square miles.
Antarctica is like a living laboratory. More than 30 major research stations perch on the ice. Most are found along the coast, but a few exist even in the continent's interior, including one at the South Pole itself. Many are occupied year-round, and others only seasonally. Important research goes on in the intense cold. Scientists study the ice sheet for possible effects of global warming. Researchers monitor the hole in the ozone layer--the layer of gases in the atmosphere that shields the earth from the sun's ultraviolet rays. Others examine tiny marine organisms called plankton for changes caused by increased radiation. Paleontologists scour exposed rocks for fossils, evidence that the continent once lay farther north, attached to South America, Africa, and Australia. Because of Antarctica's importance to science, 43 member countries of the Antarctic Treaty agreed, in 1991, to ban all mining and oil exploration for 50 years, preserving this unusual continent for science.
Antarctica is not a country. It does not belong to any one country, either. Seven nations have claimed portions of the continent. Since 1959, 43 countries have signed the Antarctic Treaty. In it, they agree to work with each other in their scientific research. They also agree to forbid military action and nuclear explosions.
Sample these internet sites and complete the activities for each one to learn more about our coldest continent.
From the menu on the left, click on "Researcher Q & A". Then click on "To see the current list of questions and answers, click here." Then click on "New Questions".
This information is from an Antarctic scientist named Chris Bero who is living at the South Pole.
National Geographic World Atlas for Young Explorers. Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1998.
Sayre, April Pulley. Antarctica. Brookfield, Conn.: Twenty-First Century Books, 1998.
Simon, Noel. Nature in Danger. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Visit the Utah Education Network's Our World web site for information on the other six continents and all of the countries around the globe.