Often described as a continent of superlatives, Antarctica is the world’s southernmost continent. It is also the world’s highest, driest, windiest, coldest, and iciest continent. It is about 5.5 million square miles (14.2 million square km) in size, and thick ice covers about 98 percent of the land. The continent is divided into East (which is largely composed of a high ice-covered plateau) and West (which is largely an ice sheet covering an archipelago of mountainous islands). East is larger than West and they separated by the Transantarctic Mountains.
Lying almost concentrically around the South Pole, Antarctica’s name means “opposite to the Arctic.” It would be essentially circular except for the outflaring Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches toward the southern tip of South America (some 600 miles [970 km] away), and for the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. These deep embayments of the southernmost Pacific and Atlantic oceans make the continent somewhat pear-shaped, dividing it into two unequal-sized parts.
The continental ice sheet contains approximately 7 million cubic miles (about 29 million cubic km) of ice, representing about 90 percent of the world’s ice and 80 percent of its fresh water. Its average thickness is about 5,900 feet (1,800 metres). Ice shelves, or ice sheets floating on the sea, cover many parts of the Ross and Weddell seas. These shelves—the Ross Ice Shelf and the Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf—together with other shelves around the continental margins, fringe about 45 percent of Antarctica. Around the Antarctic coast, shelves, glaciers, and ice sheets continually “calve,” or discharge, icebergs into the seas.
The Transantarctic Mountains, northern Victoria Land.
The continent is a cold dry desert where access to water determines the abundance of life. While the terrestrial ecosystem contains more than a thousand known species of organisms, most of these are microorganisms. Maritime Antarctica—the islands and coasts—supports more life than inland Antarctica, and the surrounding ocean is as rich in life as the land is barren.
From the late 18th to the mid-20th century, whalers and sealers plied the rich seas that surround the continent. Science then replaced whaling and sealing as the primary year-round human activity in Antarctica. In addition, krill harvesting and other types of commercial fishing in the Southern Ocean expanded from the 1960s onwards. The new millennium saw tourism and (to a lesser extent) biological prospecting (the search for useful chemical compounds and genes in local species) become established sectors of the Antarctic economic landscape.
Governments mandated many early expeditions—whether ostensibly economic, scientific, or exploratory in character—to make territorial claims. With the International Geophysical Year (IGY) in 1957–58, the present scale of scientific investigation of Antarctica began, and on December 1, 1959, the twelve countries that were active in Antarctica during the IGY signed the Antarctic Treaty. This treaty, which was an unprecedented landmark in diplomacy, preserves the continent for nonmilitary scientific pursuits and placed Antarctica under an international regime that, for the treaty’s duration, holds all territorial claims in place. The treaty bound its members indefinitely, with a review of its provisions possible after 30 years. A subsequent treaty, called the Madrid Protocol (adopted in 1991) prohibited mining, required environmental impact assessments for new activities, and designated the continent as a natural reserve.
Knowledge about Antarctica has increased greatly since the IGY. Geologists, geophysicists, glaciologists, biologists, and other scientists have mapped and visited all of the continent’s mountain regions. Until the 1970s, scientists relied on ground-based geophysical techniques such as seismic surveys of the Antarctic ice sheets to reveal hidden mountain ranges and peaks. Advances in radar technology since then have resulted in airborne radio-echo sounding systems that can measure ice-thickness, which has enabled scientific teams to make systematic remote surveys of ice-buried terrains. Satellites and other remote-sensing technologies have become key tools in providing mapping data.
The ice-choked and stormy seas around Antarctica long hindered exploration by wooden-hulled ships. No lands break the relentless force of the prevailing west winds as they race clockwise around the continent, dragging westerly ocean currents along beneath. The southernmost parts of the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans converge into a cold oceanic water mass with unique biological and physical characteristics. Early penetration of this Southern (or Antarctic) Ocean in the search for fur seals led in 1820 to the discovery of the continent. Icebreakers and aircraft now make access relatively easy, although still not without hazard in inclement conditions. In addition, many tourists have visited Antarctica, which has underscored the value of scenic resources in the continent’s economic development.
Map of Antarctica highlighting the major geographic regions, ice sheets, and sites of several research stations. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.
The term Antarctic region refers to all area—oceanic, island, and continental—lying in the cold Antarctic climatic zone south of the Antarctic Convergence, an important boundary around 55° S, with little seasonal variability, where warm subtropical waters meet and mix with cold polar waters (see also polar ecosystem). For legal purposes of the Antarctic Treaty, the arbitrary boundary of latitude 60° S is used, south of which lies the Antarctic Treaty Area. The familiar map boundaries of the continent known as Antarctica, defined as the South Polar landmass and all its nonfloating grounded ice, are subject to change with current and future climate change. The continent was ice-free during most of its lengthy geologic history, and there is no reason to believe it will not become so again.