What do you know about Antarctica? Although there are a lot of things that make Antarctica one of the most interesting places in the world, many people don’t know much about it. So bundle up, because in this article we're headed to Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, to learn some intriguing and fun facts about this underappreciated continent!
1) Antarctica is a desert.
Because of a common misconception that deserts must be hot and sandy, you may be shocked to find out that Antarctica is a desert! The continent sees extremely limited precipitation—on average, less than 51 mm annually. This is because the strong winds and freezing temperatures result in very low humidity levels. At 8.6 million square miles, Antarctica is also the largest desert in the world.
2) People living in the settlement of Villas Las Estrellas must first get their appendix removed.
Appendicitis is a medical emergency that can become life-threatening in just a short amount of time. In Antarctica, there isn’t an abundance of doctors around. This is why people in Villas Las Estrellas, an Antarctica settlement where people can stay for years instead of months, must have their appendix removed before they go.
This avoids trouble such as the following: a Russian doctor contracted appendicitis in Antarctica in the 1960s—but was the only person there capable of removing it. He had two expeditioners assist with surgical retractors and a mirror so he could see what he was doing, and he managed to remove his own appendix using only local anesthetic. Ouch!
3) Antarctica is the only continent on Earth without any terrestrial mammals.
Antarctica is an extremely hostile environment for land-dwellers, but it is the happy home to a range of marine wildlife and birds! This includes penguins, whales, seals, and albatrosses. The most abundant animal in Antarctica is krill; there is estimated to be about 400 tons of it in the Antarctic ocean. In terms of birds, the penguin is the one you’ll see the most. Antarctica alone houses 18 different species of penguin, including the Emperor Penguin.
Contrary to popular belief, polar bears do not live in Antarctica. They dwell in the Arctic Circle, which encompasses the Arctic Sea and landmasses such as Alaska, Canada, Russia, and Greenland.
4) It holds most of Earth's fresh water.
Although it has a dry climate, Antarctica holds about 70% of the world’s fresh water within its ice sheets. If melted, these ice sheets have the ability to raise sea levels by 200 feet, which is one reason why rising global temperatures is so dangerous. Even one foot of increase in sea levels can have devastating effects for Earth’s continents.
5) There is a buried mountain range in Antarctica.
In the 1950s, Russian scientists detected unusual gravity fluctuations beneath the ice. It wasn’t until 60 years later that scientists realized there was a mountain range beneath their feet. The Gamburtsev Mountains—commonly referred to as “ghost mountains"—are hidden under three miles of ice. And they are by no means small! To put it in perspective, the Gamburtsev Mountains rival the Alps; you just can't see them. With some science and computer imaging, however, we’ve been able to replicate what they probably look like.
6) Antarctica has a blood-red waterfall.
This spooky geographic formation, nicknamed the “Blood Falls,” was an enigma for over 100 years. But it turns out the explanation is quite simple: the water comes from a subglacial lake (more on that later) that comes into contact with iron oxides, giving it that striking blood-red color.
7) Antarctica has no official time zone.
While Antarctica is occupied year-round, there are no fully permanent inhabitants. There is also no government. Because of this, no official time zone has ever been set. Instead, those in Antarctica using scientific bases go with whatever time it is in the base’s home country. There’s over 70 scientific bases in Antarctica, operated by more than 25 countries around the world.
8) The South Pole has only one sunrise and sunset per year.
This is because the Earth tilts on its axes (the Poles) at different points of the year, and so the South Pole is exposed to dramatically different amounts of sunlight based on the season. It typically takes the months of August to October for the sun to fully rise and stays there for the next six months. It never sets during that time; it only moves across the horizon. From March to May, the sun sets, and for the next six months it stays below the horizon. This means almost total darkness between May and August, and with the absence of the sun comes significantly colder temperatures.
9) There are over 200 underground lakes in Antarctica.
Subglacial lakes form because the geothermal heat from the Earth’s interior is trapped and insulated by the thick layers of ice above. The largest of all the lakes is Lake Vostok, which is buried under about two and a half miles of ice.
10) 11 babies have been born in Antarctica.
The first was a boy named Emilio Marcos Palma, born on January 7th, 1978. His father was head of the Argentine Army detachment at the Esperanza base. When his mother was heavily pregnant, she was airlifted to Antarctica in an attempt to gain Argentine sovereignty over the claimed Argentine Antarctica.
Argentina has claimed this part of Antarctica as part of its national territory, but this is not internationally recognized. This area also overlaps with British and Chilean “claimed” territory.
Sources: Live Science, BBC, NASA