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Tales from the End of the Earth: An Antarctica and Arctic Symposium: Antarctica Resources and Information

March 6 2024 1:00pm-4:30pm

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Antarctica Facts

Antarctica is truly a unique continent on Earth. Its climate conditions make it a hostile and dangerous environment for humans. In fact, Antarctica is the only continent on Earth without any permanent human residents. It is, however, abundant with a variety of wildlife who thrive despite the harsh climate. It is the only continent on Earth that has remained nearly untouched.

 Image by Stuart Franklin "50th Selection Anarctica 1991" from ArtStor

Antarctica is the location of the South Pole (or the southern axis of the Earth's rotation). It is a continent surrounded by ocean and sits at 2,836 meters above sea level. 98% of Antarctica is covered in ice and life is dependent on the ocean that surrounds it. Under the ice, sea creatures are able to thrive and diversify. This, in turn, creates an  ideal feeding and breeding grounds for many birds an land mammals. Antarctica is home to a wide variety of land and sea life including species of seals, penguins, whales, birds, fish, and krill.

Image by Stanley N. Botwinik 1972 "Pintado Petrel" from ArtStor


Because of the planet's tilt, the pole faces away from the sun in winter and towards the sun in summer. This happens on both the south and north poles. Therefore, during the winter months, Antarctica faces perpetual darkness. The opposite is true in the summer months, the sun doesn't set and the continent experiences perpetual daylight. 

Image from

Every winter the continent doubles in size as the sea freezes over. If Antarctica's winter ice were permanent, it would become the third largest continent on Earth (during the summer months it ranks as the sixth largest continent on Earth). Despite this enormous change in size, the continent is still primarily covered in ice and snow year round. In fact, during the summer months, only two percent of the continent's land is free of ice and snow.

Nasa Earth Observatory "Sea Ice Concentration" 2013

Likewise all time zones converge at the South Pole. Therefore it is up to each station to decide which time zone they are going to observe. This decision is usually based on the operator or supplier's country of origin. However, it is sometimes based on time zones closest to the base. The Amundsen-Scott station, located on the South Pole, observes New Zealand Standard Time.

Image from Wikipedia

For centuries, Antarctica has intrigued human curiosity and imagination. Even before explorers set out to see the continent for themselves, philosophers, geographers, and mathematicians were discussing the possibility of its existence.

Image by Frederick de Wit - 1666 "G9800 1650 T4 Antarctica. Terra Australis Incognita." from ArtStor

Many explorers tried and failed to discover the fabled "Great South Land" but it was not until James Cook set out in 1772 that the existence of Antarctica was confirmed. 

Image "Portrait of James Cook" by William Hodges from Wikipedia

Many trade ships travelled to Antarctica to exploit the bounty of seal skins and whale oil that could be found in the Antarctic waters. These early sealers and whalers of the 19th century brought many species to the brink of extinction and left an enduring legacy of destruction. 

Image "Sea Leopards at the Island of Deception, South Shetland" by Lieut. E.N. Kendall 1829

Source: Dibbern, J. Stephen. "Fur Seals, Whales and Tourists: A Commercial History of Deception Island, Antarctica," Polar Record: A Journal of Arctic and Antarctic Research, Vol. 46 Issue 3, 02 Sept 2009, 210-221. DOI 10.1017/S0032247409008651.

The Weddell Seal was named after the British explorer who discovered the breed in 1823. Weddell Seals are notable for its thin and spotted coat which made their hides unappealing to sealers. They were, however, hunted for their meat and oil.

Image "Weddell Seal" by Stanley N. Botwinik from ArtStor

During the turn of the twentieth century, the South Pole became the final frontier of global exploration and discovery. Antarctic's hostile elements became a test of personal and national ambition, strength, and courage. It was in 1895, with the International Geographical Congress in London England, that a great race began to see who would be the first to reach the South Pole. 

Image "RRS Discovery" by Robert Falcon Scott 1901 from Wikipedia

1908 Ernest Shackleton's Nimrod expedition was the first to attempt the great quest to the center of Antarctica. He managed to get close before having to turn back due to conditions. 

Image "Sir Ernest Shackleton's Officers and Crew on the Deck of the Nimrod 1907" from ArtStor

The Great Race to the South Pole was finally settled in 1911 when Robert Scott from Britain (aboard the Terra Nova) and Roald Amundson from Norway (aboard the Fram) attempted to be the first to reach the South Pole.

Image "Captain R F Scott and another man on vessel" from ArtStor

Despite both parties being well prepared for the journey, Amundsen's team had gained the upper hand when they chose the Bay of Wales as his base camp. Scott chose the Ross Ice Shelf as his base camp, 96 km further away from the South Pole.

Image "Portrait of Amundsen in a fur-trimmed parka with the hood up" from ArtStor

Amundsen relied on experienced sled dogs to complete the journey which proved to be a sound and intelligent choice. Scott's team had a collection of mechanized sleds, ponies, and dogs. Neither the ponies nor the mechanized sleds proved useful under the harsh Antarctic environment. Scott and his team often had to resort to manpower to haul their supplies. Amundsen's dogs were able to withstand the cold temperatures and icy terrain and made much better time than Scott's team.

Image "Amundsen and his team of sled dogs 1911" from CoolAntarctica

Amundsen and his team arrived at the Pole on 14 Dec 1911. Scott and his team arrived at the Pole over a month later on 17 Jan 1912. Nearly a month after Amundsen had already returned from their expedition. 

Image: Members of Roald Amundsen's South Pole expedition 1910-12 at the Pole itself, December 1911 (from left to right) Roald Amundsen, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel and Oscar Wisting from Wikipedia.

Due to a number of missteps and miscalculations, Scott and his men were not able to make it back to base camp before the winter storms halted all progress. The men were found dead in a tent just 18 km away from their next supply camp.

Image "Tabloid Medical Chest for Scott's Antarctic Expedition" 1910 from ArtStor

Despite its inhospitable climates, Antarctica continues to captivate human interest, exploration, and exploitation. Many countries lay claim to segments of this cold continent. The United Stats and Soviet Union were making territorial claims for the purposes of scientific research on the continent. Operation Deep Freeze was one such American military claim on segments of Antarctica for scientific research.

Image "Book Illustration" by Dean Cornwall 1892-1969

At the height of the Cold War, the United Nations established the Antarctic Treaty (1959) which states that Antarctica shall only be used for peaceful and scientific purposes. 

Image: "Signature of the Antarctic Treaty on 1 December 1959 in Washington, DC, by Ambassador Herman Phleger from the United States, who chaired the Conference on Antarctica from 15 October to 1 December 1959" (Department of State, 1960) from Science Direct Courtesy of the Carleton College Archives.

The original treaty included 12 countries (Argentina, Austalia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, Russia, South Africa, United Kingdom, and the United States). Today 56 countries are included in the Antarctic Treaty. The Treaty is set to be renegotiated in 2048. 

Image: Antarctic Treaty Participating Countries from DiscoveringAntarctica.

Climate change is affecting Antarctica's ecosystem in tremendous and devastating ways. 90% of the world's ice is in Antarctica and its melting at an alarming rate. In addition, climate change are making conditions harder for bird and penguin populations. 

Image "Adelie penguins are vulnerable due to the sea ice depletion caused by climate change and a decline in krill" from CNN