Antartica – “If Antartica were music it would be Mozart. Art, and it would be Michelangelo. Literature, and it would be Shakespeare. And yet it is something even greater; the only place on earth that is still as it should be. May we never tame it”
The following article also includes photographs taken by yours truly when I was there on the cruiseship as part of the Grand Voyage Itinery.
Antarctica is Earth’s southernmost continent, containing the geographic South Pole. It is situated in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. At 14,000,000 square kilometres (5,400,000 square miles), it is the fifth-largest continent in area after Asia, Africa, North America, and South America. For comparison, Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages 1.9 kilometres (1.2 mi) in thickness, which extends to all but the northernmost reaches of the Antarctic Peninsula.
Antarctica, on average, is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents. Antarctica is considered a desert, with annual precipitation of only 200 mm (8 in) along the coast and far less inland. The temperature in Antarctica has reached −89 °C (−129 °F), though the average for the third quarter (the coldest part of the year) is −63 °C (−81 °F). There are no permanent human residents, but anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 people reside throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the continent. Organisms native to Antarctica include many types of algae, bacteria, fungi,plants, protista, and certain animals, such as mites, nematodes, penguins, seals and tardigrades. Vegetation, where it occurs, istundra.
Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis (“Southern Land”) date back to antiquity, the Russian expedition of Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen and Mikhail Lazarev on Vostok and Mirny first sighted a continental ice shelf in 1820. The continent, however, remained largely neglected for the rest of the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of resources, and isolation.
Antarctica is a de facto condominium, governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System that have consulting status. Twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and thirty-eight have signed it since then. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, prohibits nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal, supports scientific research, and protects the continent’secozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than 4,000 scientists from many nations.
It was the ancient Greeks who first came up with the idea of Antarctica. They knew about the Arctic – named Arktos -The Bear, from the constellation the great bear and decided that in order to balance the world, there should be a similar cold Southern landmass that was the same but the opposite “Ant – Arktos” – opposite The Bear. They never actually went there, it was just a lucky guess!
In January, Captain James Cook crosses the Antarctic circle and circumnavigates Antarctica, though he doesn’t sight land, deposits of rock seen in icebergs showed that a southern continent exists. His comment – “I make bold to declare that the world will derive no benefit from it”.
1819 – 21
Captain Thaddeus Bellingshausen a Russian naval officer in the Vostok and Mirny circumnavigates the Antarctic, first to cross the Antarctic circle since Cook.
He made the first sighting of the continent, reaching 69° 21’S, 2° 14’W – describing an “icefield covered with small hillocks.” on Jan 27th 1820.
For some considerable time, exactly who and when first set eyes on Antarctica were in dispute as British naval officers, William Smith and Edward Bransfield also saw Antarctica on Jan 30th the same year – followed by American sealer Nathaniel Palmer on Nov 16th.
This was the first time a continent had truly been “discovered” (i.e. there weren’t any native peoples living there who’d known about it for ages already). All sightings are of the Antarctic Peninsula.
February the 7th. 1st known landing on continental Antarcticaby American sealer Captain John Davis, though this is not acknowledged by all historians.
In the winter of 1821, for the first time ever a party of men spent a winter in Antarctica. An officer and ten men from a British sealing ship the Lord Melville had to spend the winter on King George Island -part of the South Shetlands group, north of the Antarctic Peninsula. The ship had been driven offshore and did not return to pick them up again. They were rescued the following summer.
British whaler James Weddell discovers the sea named after him and then reaches the most southerly point at that time 74° 15′ S. No one else manages to penetrate the Weddell sea again for 80 years.
Separate British, French and American expeditions establish the status of Antarctica as a continentafter sailing along continuous coastline.
In 1840, British naval officer and scientist James Clark Ross takes two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, to within 80 miles of the coast until stopped by a massive ice barrier – now called the Ross Ice Shelf. He also discovers the active volcano that he names after his ship Erebus, and identifies 145 new species of fish (not personally you understand – a scientist on the ship did that bit).
Late 1800’s to early 20th century
Many expeditions largely by sealers and whalers to all parts of Antarctica.Mainly marine exploration and exploration of the sub Antarctic islands.
March. Adrien de Gerlache and the crew of the “Belgica” become trapped in pack ice off the Antarctic Peninsula in the first scientific expedition to the continent. They become the first to survive an Antarctic winter(involuntarily!) as their ship drifts with the ice (they didn’t enjoy it).
Carsten Borchgrevink leads a British expedition that landed men at Cape Adare and built huts. This was the first time that anyone had wintered on the Antarctic landmass. Believed by some historians to be the first confirmed landing on continental Antarctica.
Captain Scott, UK, leads his first Antarctic expedition to try to reach the South Pole, with Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson. They are forced to turn back two months later having reached 82 degrees south, suffering from snow blindness and scurvy.
Several other publicly and privately sponsored expeditions around this time.
By now, these are driven by science, geography and exploration- less by the exploitation of resources such as seals and whales.
1907 – 1909Ernest Shackleton leads expedition to within 156km / 97mls of the South Pole, turns back after supplies are exhausted.
January, Australian Douglas Mawsonreaches the South Magnetic Pole.
December 14th. Norwegian Roald Amundsen leads a five man expedition that reaches the South Pole for the first time.
January 18th. Britain’s Captain Robert Falcon Scott reaches the South Pole to discover he has been beaten by Amundsen. All of the five man team (Scott, Bowers, Evans, Oates and Wilson), are to perish on the return journey only 11 miles from supply depot. Bodies are not discovered until November.
December. Douglas Mawson begins his trek across George V Land back to his base at Commonwealth Bay. His two companions had died, and against the odds he makes it home. A new section of coast is discovered and described, and radio is used for the first time in Antarctica.
October. Ernest Shackleton returns to Antarctica in an attempt to complete the first crossing of the continent. The goal is not attained, but one of the greatest adventures of all time follows. Their ship is crushed in the sea ice and a small party sets out for South Georgia and the whaling station. The party is eventually rescued in 1917.
The beginning of large-scale factory ship whaling in the Ross Sea.
Australian Sir George Wilkins and American Carl Benjamin Eielson are the first to fly over Antarctica around the peninsula region.
Richard E. Byrd and three others – US – become the first to fly over the South Pole.
Lincoln Ellsworth – US – flies across the continent.
Caroline Mikkelsen, Norway, is the first woman to set foot on Antarctica when she accompanies her husband, a whaling captain.
Operation Highjump – US- sends the largest ever expedition of over 4700 men, 13 ships and 23 airplanes to Antarctica. Most of the coast is photographed for map making.
US aircraft lands at South Pole. First people there since Scott and his team in 1912.
1st July 1957 – 31st Dec 1958
International Geophysical Year (IGY)12 nations establish over 60 stations in Antarctica. The beginning of international cooperation in Antarctica and the start of the process by which Antarctica becomes “non-national”.
The first successful land crossing via the South Poleis led by British geologist Vivian Fuchs with New Zealander Edmund Hillary leading the back up party, over 40 years after Shackleton’s expedition set out with the same aim.
Antarctic treaty comes into effect
Boerge Ousland (Norway) becomes first person to cross Antarctica unsupported. Taking 64 days from Berkner Island to Scott base towing a 180kg (400lb) sled and using skis and a sail.
March 2007 – March 2009
International Polar Year – Actually Spans two years in order that researchers get the opportunity to work in both polar regions or work summer and winter if they wish.
Positioned asymmetrically around the South Pole and largely south of the Antarctic Circle, Antarctica is the southernmost continent and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean; alternatively, it may be considered to be surrounded by the southern Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, or by the southern waters of the World Ocean. It covers more than 14,000,000 km2(5,400,000 sq mi), making it the fifth-largest continent, about 1.3 times as large as Europe. The coastline measures 17,968 km (11,165 mi) and is mostly characterized by ice formations, as the following table shows:
|Ice shelf (floating ice front)||44%|
|Ice walls (resting on ground)||38%|
|Ice stream/outlet glacier (ice front or ice wall)||13%|
Antarctica is divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The portion west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is called West Antarctica and the remainder East Antarctica, because they roughly correspond to the Western and Eastern Hemispheres relative to the Greenwich meridian.
About 98% of Antarctica is covered by the Antarctic ice sheet, a sheet of ice averaging at least 1.6 km (1.0 mi) thick. The continent has about 90% of the world’s ice (and thereby about 70% of the world’s fresh water). If all of this ice were melted, sea levels would rise about 60 m (200 ft). In most of the interior of the continent, precipitation is very low, down to 20 mm (0.8 in) per year; in a few “blue ice” areas precipitation is lower than mass loss by sublimation and so the local mass balance is negative. In the dry valleys, the same effect occurs over a rock base, leading to a desiccated landscape.
West Antarctica is covered by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The sheet has been of recent concern because of the real, if small, possibility of its collapse. If the sheet were to break down, ocean levels would rise by several metres in a relatively geologically short period of time, perhaps a matter of centuries. Several Antarctic ice streams, which account for about 10% of the ice sheet, flow to one of the many Antarctic ice shelves: see ice-sheet dynamics.
East Antarctica lies on the Indian Ocean side of the Transantarctic Mountains and comprises Coats Land, Queen Maud Land, Enderby Land, Mac. Robertson Land, Wilkes Land, and Victoria Land. All but a small portion of this region lies within the Eastern Hemisphere. East Antarctica is largely covered by the East Antarctic Ice Sheet.
Vinson Massif, the highest peak in Antarctica at 4,892 m (16,050 ft), is located in the Ellsworth Mountains. Antarctica contains many other mountains, on both the main continent and the surrounding islands. Mount Erebus on Ross Island is the world’s southernmost active volcano. Another well-known volcano is found on Deception Island, which is famous for a giant eruption in 1970. Minor eruptions are frequent and lava flow has been observed in recent years. Other dormant volcanoes may potentially be active. In 2004, a potentially active underwater volcano was found in the Antarctic Peninsula by American and Canadian researchers.
Antarctica is home to more than 70 lakes that lie at the base of the continental ice sheet. Lake Vostok, discovered beneath Russia’s Vostok Station in 1996, is the largest of these subglacial lakes. It was once believed that the lake had been sealed off for 500,000 to one million years but a recent survey suggests that, every so often, there are large flows of water from one lake to another.
There is some evidence, in the form of ice cores drilled to about 400 m (1,300 ft) above the water line, that Lake Vostok’s waters may contain microbial life. The frozen surface of the lake shares similarities with Jupiter’s moon, Europa. If life is discovered in Lake Vostok, it would strengthen the argument for the possibility of life on Europa. On 7 February 2008, a NASA team embarked on a mission to Lake Untersee, searching for extremophiles in its highly alkaline waters. If found, these resilient creatures could further bolster the argument for extraterrestrial life in extremely cold, methane-rich environments.
About – (Video) – “Under Antartica”
Under the Antarctica – Full Documentary HD
The Antarctic ice sheet is one of the two polar ice caps of the Earth. It covers about 98% of the Antarctic continent and is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 26.5 million cubic km of ice.
That is, approximately 61 percent of all fresh water on the Earth is held in the Antarctic ice sheet, an amount equivalent to 70 m of water in the world’s oceans. In East Antarctica, the ice sheet rests on a major land mass, but in West Antarctica the bed can extend to more than 2,500 m below sea level. The land in this area would be seabed if the ice sheet were not there.
The icing of Antarctica began with ice-rafting from middle Eocene times about 45.5 million years ago and escalated inland widely during the Eocene – Oligocene extinction event about 34 million years ago. CO2 levels were then about 760 ppm and had been decreasing from earlier levels in the thousands of ppm. Carbon dioxide decrease, with a tipping point of 600 ppm, was the primary agent forcing Antarctic glaciation.
The glaciation was favored by an interval when the Earth’s orbit favored cool summers but Oxygen isotope ratio cycle marker changes were too large to be explained by Antarctic ice-sheet growth alone indicating an ice age of some size. The opening of the Drake Passage may have played a role as well though models of the changes suggest declining CO2 levels to have been more important.
Ice enters the sheet through precipitation as snow. This snow is then compacted to form glacier ice which moves under gravity towards the coast. Most of it is carried to the coast by fast moving ice streams. The ice then passes into the ocean, often forming vast floating ice shelves. These shelves then melt or calve off to give icebergs that eventually melt.
If the transfer of the ice from the land to the sea is balanced by snow falling back on the land then there will be no net contribution to global sea levels. A 2002 analysis of NASA satellite data from 1979 – 1999 showed that while overall the land ice is decreasing, areas of Antarctica where sea ice was increasing outnumbered areas of decreasing sea ice roughly 2:1.
The general trend shows that a warming climate in the southern hemisphere would transport more moisture to Antarctica, causing the interior ice sheets to grow, while calving events along the coast will increase, causing these areas to shrink. A 2006 paper derived from satellite data, measures changes in the gravity of the ice mass, suggests that the total amount of ice in Antarctica has begun decreasing in the past few years.
Another recent study compared the ice leaving the ice sheet, by measuring the ice velocity and thickness along the coast, to the amount of snow accumulation over the continent. This found that the East Antarctic Ice Sheet was in balance but the West Antarctic Ice Sheet was losing mass. This was largely due to acceleration of ice streams such as Pine Island Glacier. These results agree closely with the gravity changes.
The estimate published in November 2012 and based on the GRACE data as well as on an improved glacial isostatic adjustment model indicates that an average yearly mass loss was 69 ± 18 Gt/y from 2002 to 2010. The West Antarctic Ice Sheet was approximately in balance while the East Antarctic Ice Sheet gained mass. The mass loss was mainly concentrated along the Amundsen Sea coast.
Human Impacts on Antarctica and Threats to the Environment – Tourism
In terms of numbers, tourists greatly outnumber national programme personnel 46,069 as against 5,000 in the peak season so far in 2007/2008 and mid 30,000’s in the years since. This led to a call for tourist numbers to be limited as that figure was up 14% on the previous year.
Very large ships (500 passengers +) do not now go to Antarctica. (Oops..maybe I was wrong?) These used to account for large numbers of the counted tourists as they carried so many passengers. They tended not to make any landings and only made a fleeting visit of 2 or 3 days out of a longer wider ranging cruise.
These large ships were a great concern as an incident involving an oil or fuel spill from them would have been very significant. Any kind of rescue or evacuation would also have been very difficult owing to the large numbers of people on board.
The most recent figures for the 2013-14 season show that there were 37,405 visitors. The national programme personnel clock up far more man-days however, and impacts are difficult to compare directly.
Note – The Antarctic tourist season is in the austral (southern hemisphere) summer from November to March, and spans part of two calendar years, so seasons are referred to as 2012-2013 meaning from November 2012 to March 2013 for instance.
I never thought I would ever travel to this part of the Southern Hemisphere! And before I could think twice, there I was on a voyage to Antartica! You must remember that only a few select cruiselines are given the permission to sail to Antartica because the authorities are scared that the freqency of ships will deteriorate the already melting ice and what with the acute climate change taking place throughout the world right now, we can only guess how much longer they’ll allow cruiseships to sail around this part of the Southern Hemisphere.
We might be closer than we think to closure. I was indeed extremely lucky to have travelled here before tourists will be “shut-off from” seeing it again. Apparently according to some reports, ships carrying up to 500 passengers and above are not allowed to sail there anymore – s0 maybe I am one of the last tourists to ever see it?