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Antarctica, fifth largest of Earth’s seven continents. Antarctica surrounds the South Pole and is a place of extremes. It is the southernmost, coldest, iciest, driest, windiest, most remote, and most recently discovered continent. Nearly the entire landmass lies within the Antarctic Circle. Air temperatures of the high inland regions fall below -80°C (-110°F) in winter and rise only to -30°C (-20°F) in summer. Massive ice sheets built up from snow over millions of years cover almost all of the continent and float in huge ice shelves on coastal waters. In winter frozen sea water (sea ice) more than doubles the size of the Antarctic ice cap. Antarctica's vast areas of ice on land and on sea play a major role in Earth’s climate and could be strongly affected by global warming. The melting of Antarctic ice could dramatically raise global sea level.
Antarctica means “opposite to the Arctic,” Earth’s northernmost region. Antarctica is completely encircled by the Southern Ocean. The entire area south of the Antarctic Convergence zone where cold Antarctic waters sink below warmer waters on the northern boundary of the Southern Ocean is referred to as the Antarctic region.
The small human presence on Antarctica is made up of visiting scientists, support staff, and tourists. The last continent to be discovered, Antarctica remained hidden behind barriers of fog, storm, and sea ice until it was first sighted in the early 19th century. Because of the extreme cold and the lack of native peoples, forests, land animals, and obvious natural resources, the continent remained largely neglected for decades after discovery. Scientific expeditions and seal hunters had explored only fragments of its coasts by the end of the 19th century, while the interior remained unknown. Explorers first reached the South Pole in 1911, and the first permanent settlements—scientific stations—were established in the early 1940s. From that time the pace of exploration and scientific research has accelerated rapidly. In the mid- to late 20th century, the region’s majestic scenery and wildlife began to attract increasing numbers of tourists.
Seven nations—Argentina, Australia, the United Kingdom, Chile, France, New Zealand, and Norway—claim territory in Antarctica. Other nations, including the United States and Russia, do not acknowledge these claims and make no claims of their own, but reserve rights to claim territory in the future. Since 1961 the continent has been administered under the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement to preserve the continent for peaceful scientific study.
Stonehouse, Bernard, B.S., M.A., Ph.D.
Senior Associate and head of the Polar Ecology and Management Group, Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambtidge. Author of "Polar Ecology" and other books.