Hearty globetrotters are usually eager to get their hands on as many world facts as possible, usually preceding the next exotic or fanciful location that they’re traveling to. If you’re one of the lucky few that’s going to brave the balefully frigid temperatures of Antarctica (or even if you just want to know more about the continent) we have facts that you’ll want to read. Just as with any other location on Earth, there are quite a few myths surrounding the planet’s southernmost continent. And separating fantasy from much more interesting facts is sort of our specialty.
If Antarctica has ever been on your personal radar, read on! This place has more to offer than popular knowledge will ever indicate, and we’ve learned far more about it than most people know!
Without a doubt, you may think you know a fair bit about the fifth largest continent in the world. It’s cold, it’s barren, and supposedly, not a single inch of it is suitable for supporting human life. What we need to persist isn’t sustainable, there, and even research expeditions don’t inhabit the land there in any way that we might know as familiar. There are no town, certainly no cities, and no houses, in the traditional sense. Still, over a century of scientific discovery has given us quite a bit of information about this isolated and bleak environment. We know about its seasons, the soil, the ice, and the myriad forms of life that have adapted to live here.
And even though humans might not number among them—not without the safety of life-supporting research habitations—that doesn’t mean that any of the myriad facts surrounding this robust and abundant life isn’t worthy of interest.
The southern continent of Antarctica is perhaps best known for being the location of Earth’s southern pole. It’s widely regarded as uninhabitable and has remained that way for many millions of years, having separated from greater landmass far earlier in Earth’s relative life. Nevertheless, it’s a massive expanse of land that’s almost entirely covered with ice. In fact, the “size” of Antarctica itself expands and reduces based on the expanses of ice that build up on it.
Even though there’s far more life present on and around Antarctica than many might assume, it’s comparatively barren when you stack it up against almost any other continent or region on the planet. Given that it’s also the coldest documented region on the planet, perhaps that isn’t so much of a surprise, after all.
Below, we’ll highlight some of the more prominent aspects of the continent of Antarctica. We’ll discuss the ever-fluctuating populations of people who only remain there seasonally. We’ll also discuss the landmass—which we’re still learning much about—as well as the surprising amounts of biological diversity present in this frigid region.
While many of the regions—countries, continents, and more—that we discuss have a more tangible and stable population, Antarctica is something of an oddity. Because there isn’t any consistent population in the ways that we normally recognize such a thing, the actual numerical population is harder to keep track of. Many of the things humans require to inhabit a place are nowhere to be found—agriculture, temperate climate, or sources of food. What exists in Antarctica largely has to be brought in by those who are staying there.
And there are people living in Antarctica, of course. The continent is a host for many research stations, directed, staffed and supported by a wide variety of different nations. Those populations are rarely more than several thousand at any given time and tend to fluctuate based on the current season in Antarctica more than anything else.
According to an article from the UK-based Independent, 4000 is a close approximation of the maximum number of people that are living in Antarctica at the peak “summer” season. Occasionally, this number is bolstered by tour charters that take passengers into the frigid waters and tertiary isles surrounding Antarctica. And during the much colder months, that 4000 dwindles down to a number closer to 500, or even less!
The greater portion of this highly variable population belongs to a United States research base, and though it’s a far cry from anything that we’d think of as “civilization,” many who are stationed there come to think of it as a sort of town. McMurdo hosts up to 1200 or more people during Antarctica’s summer, most of them American workers. And of interest to our millennial readers—it was the location of the very first Tinder date ever hosted on the continent!
One of the largest myths surrounding the continent of Antarctica has to do with its landmass. Many assume that it’s made entirely of ice due to the frigid temperatures and frequent news about the formation of ice around the continent itself. However, this is actually false, as there’s a great deal of mountainous terrain beneath Antarctica. So mountainous, in fact, that it greatly resembles the ranges of peaks that extend for thousands of miles, such as the Andes or Rockies. It points to the likelihood that the continent of Antarctica was originally separated from a greater landmass during Earth’s tectonic history many million years before.
Oddly, much of Antarctica’s landmass is still being mapped. The fact that so much of the continent is covered with ice—more than 90% of it, at times—means that specialized methods are needed for that mapping process.
The continent is divided into West and East Antarctica, which tend to differ from each other geologically. The western half of the continent is relatively rougher terrain, featuring thousands of miles of sharp mountain peaks. All geological study of Antarctica, however, points to it being part of that larger landmass that was once joined to other continents.
As we mentioned earlier, there’s a wealth of biological diversity present in and around Antarctica, whether on the continent itself or on the many small islets surrounding it. However, even though life is surprisingly diverse, there isn’t a massive amount of that life present. The harsh climates in and out of the water aren’t conducive to great amounts of life living in the region.
If you’ve been waiting for us to talk about penguins, then congratulations. Your wait has come to an end. This somewhat legendary bird has been a facet of mainstream media ever since their discovery, and Antarctica is the prime place that scientists have found to study them. And it’s not the only species that receives extensive study. Whales, seals, and…can we interest you in the colossal squid? Though the cephalopod is known to frequent numerous seas in the southern hemisphere, scientists have been shocked to discover that it potentially inhabits the frigid temperatures of the Antarctic region.
Antarctica is also a part-time home for many species of birds that are capable of flight, such as gulls and the legendary albatross.
Contrary to what many popular films would have you believe, Antarctica is a dangerous place to inhabit for any amount of time. Any trained professional who has spent time on the content will usually be just as quick to talk about its potential dangers, as they are about its exquisite beauty. And many times, neither one of those things add up, exactly, to what we see portrayed in popular media.
Consider John Carpenter’s legendary horror film, The Thing, if you need a clear example. Ignore the science fiction aspects, and instead hone in on the fact that the actors in this film aren’t wearing nearly enough protective gear for the cold environment that they’re immersed in. If you end up in Antarctica, the temperatures will be among the coldest recorded on the planet. Thus, the protective gear that the continent’s frequent visitors must use has to be the most protective available to them.
We’ve also talked a fair bit about the biological diversity of Antarctica in this guide, but nowhere in it did we mention polar bears. The reason why? You’re not going to find any polar bears on this continent, or anywhere else in this hemisphere of the world, for that matter. No matter how frequently you happen to have seen polar bears and penguins coexisting within the same habitats in popular media, know that it’s entirely a falsehood. Polar bears inhabit the northern arctic regions of the planet—not Antarctica.
There’s plenty of further reading and viewing that you can find on the continent of Antarctica. It’s been the focus of numerous documentaries, all of which help to shed light on both the dangers and unique beauties of Earth’s southernmost continent. Films such as March of the Penguins highlight the lives and hardships of emperor penguins, the hardy species that has adapted to thrive within the harsh landscape of Antarctica. The documentary, Antarctica: A Year on the Ice, helps to reveal the necessary care that people have to take when they’re venturing to this corner of the world. There’s plenty more worth viewing, too. When combined, it shows just how much we’ve come to learn about Antarctica.