Antarctica Cruise Information
Antarctica is the southernmost continent on Earth. It is a solid land mass, over which about 98% of its surface is covered by a permanent layer of ice, measuring in places to a depth of around 1.6 km, locking in about 90% of the world’s fresh water, and near its centre is the geographic South Pole. It is located in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, almost entirely within the Antarctic Circle, surrounded on all sides by the Southern Ocean. It covers an area of almost 14.0 million km2 making it the fifth-largest continent in land mass after Asia, Africa, North America and South America and is almost twice the area size of Australia. In the winter months the surrounding sea also freezes over almost doubling the surface area of the ice sheet.
Because of the fact that Antarctica is at the South Pole and covered in freezing-cold ice, it is the coldest, but also driest (not much moisture in the air – annual rain fall is at 200 mm on the coast and far less in its interior) and the most windy of all the continents, which makes it a formidable, hostile, isolated and inhospitable environment for most living creatures in which to survive. In many places the ice cap is constantly moving into glacial rivers that then flow from the land onto the sea where vast areas of ice float until they break into enormous icebergs that then float around its coastal perimeter causing a difficult obstruction for shipping to navigate around, and an almost impenetrable barrier to the early explorers.
There is no permanent human city or conurbation on the land mass, except for a number of small scientific research settlements from the various countries that claim disputed territorial rights to the continent. These research stations are scattered across the continent, with most located near the coast, where cumulatively, between 1,000 to 4,000 scientific researchers from varying countries live during the year.
The name Antarctica is attributed to the Scottish cartographer John Bartholomew, and comes from the Greek word “aviapktikn” (“antarktike”), feminine of “aviapktikoc” which means “opposite to the north”.
In 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by twelve countries to prohibit military activities, mining and general “development” on the continent. Today the number of signatory countries has risen to forty six and, unfortunately, some are now discussing the possibilities of mining for minerals.
Early Human Antarctic History
Since the 1st century AD, the Greeks calculated that the world must be I the shape of a globe and that there must therefore be a southern land mass (“Terra Australis”) in order to “balance out” the vast northern lands of Europe, Asia and North Africa; the general idea being that there had to be a “symmetry” between the then known land masses in the world.
This large, “hypothetical”, southern land mass had been depicted on maps since the early 16th century. However on 17 January 1773, Captain James Cook became the first-known person to navigate across the Antarctic Circle on board HMS Resolution, accompanied by its sister ship HMS Adventure. Cook tried to get past the perilous natural floating ice barrier of giant icebergs on more than one voyage, but he was prevented from doing so. Nevertheless, Cook unwittingly “promoted”, via his ships logs, that this newly-discovered area contained an abundance of marine fauna, specifically seals and whales, which in turn led to the arrival of seal and whale hunters to the region shortly after. The fur pelts from seals and blubber from whales converted into easy money back in Europe and North America, although the journey to these waters and actual hunting in treacherous conditions was anything but easy. It was common for these pioneer hunters to find sought-after seal breeding grounds on Antarctic land, but such information they would keep secret for fear of a competitor coming in to take some of the bounty. As a consequence there were no official records logged of when the Antarctic land may have actually been first sighted.
It was therefore not until 1820 when the first officially-recorded sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula land mass was logged. Officially the sightings were made by Russian Naval Captain Thaddeus von Bellingshausen (27 January 1820), followed three days later by British Royal Navy Captain Edward Bransfield (30 January 1820) and a little later by a North American seal hunter called Nathaniel Palmer from Connecticut (November 1820). With regards to an actual landing on the continent, the first logged landing on Antarctica mainland was on 7 February 1821 by sealer-hunter John Davis, but this is disputed by a number of historians.
In 1909 an expedition led by Ernest Shackleton aimed to reach the South Pole, but ended just short, leaving this accomplishment to Norwegian Roald Amundsen who, on 14 December 1911 became the first explorer to reach the geographic South Pole, followed by the Scott expedition a month later.
Antarctica is the highest continent on earth with an average height of 2,500m (by comparison the average elevation of Australia is only 340m) and it contains one of the longest mountain ranges in the world called the Transantarctic Mountains that stretch for a distance of approximately 4,800km (longer than the length of Chile), mostly buried under the Antarctic ice cap, but exposed in some places, with the highest peak above the ice cap called Vinson Massif at a height of around 4,897m. The height at the South Pole measures 2,835m and the highest point on the icecap is in the claimed Australian Antarctic Territory, at 4,100m.
The Transantarctic mountains run from the north-west tip of the Antarctic Peninsula near the Weddell Sea down to Cape Adare in the south west, forming a natural dividing line between west and east Antarctica, but whilst the larger area of land under the ice cap on the east is at an elevation higher than sea level, the western-side land under the ice cap is mostly at an elevation below sea level. It has also been recently discovered that under the ice sheet are 70 lakes.