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10 Things you didn't know about Antarctica

Written by
Jennifer Richt

Antarctica may be considered one of the most inhospitable places on Earth, and indeed, not many people live there permanently - but a journey to this spectacular land of ice, snow and penguins is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The teams of scientists stationed there are still learning about the continent and sharing their discoveries with us. If you've been dreaming about visiting one day, here are ten things you might not have known about Antarctica.

Red waterfall
No time zone
Cold desert

No man’s land

While many nations have tried to claim parts of it over the past few hundred years, Antarctica is a country-less continent. The first to attempt was back in the early 1800s when British explorers wedged their flags into the ice. About 100 years later the United Kingdom marked off the territory they considered their own based on how much of the coast they had explored and drawing wedges down to the South Pole and Norway, France and the German Nazi Party soon did the same. In 1959, however, 12 countries signed the Antarctic Treaty which states that “Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”.

Ghost mountains

Humans have a tendency to push the boundaries, explore the limits and generally get in everywhere, so there are very few places on Earth left to be discovered. It’s always fascinating then, when we discover something unexpected – like a surprise mountain range buried deep under the ice in Antarctica. The Gamburstey Mountains were discovered by a team of Russian explorers in 1958 when they noticed curious gravity fluctuations in the area.  With the highest peaks measuring around 4,500 meters, the range can be compared to the European Alps. The almost haunting radar images taken of the under-ice mountains have earned the nickname “ghost mountains”.

Picture credit: Antarctic Gamburtsev Province

Crystal volcano

Antarctica is all about the breath-taking starkness and dramatic beauty of nature, so it seems fitting that it is home to a volcano that spews crystals of gold. Mount Erebus is the world’s southernmost volcano. These crystals are believed to form in the magma beneath the mountain and are ejected out of the volcano. And while it is constantly bubbling and flinging chunks of molten rock out onto its slopes, the amount of gold sprinkled around is not about to make anyone rich.

Almost bug free

Anyone who has ever travelled to some of the world’s most exotic, remote or dramatic places will no doubt have encountered a variety of weird and wonderful creepy crawlies. From mosquitos, to snakes and spiders. But in Antarctica, there’s only one insect you’ll meet, if you even spot it at all. Belgica Antarctica is a wingless fly that grows to 6mm at most. Not all that impressive? These little guys are so hardy they survive all their body fluids freezing when they’re still in larva form. On the subject of scarce creatures, Antarctica is the only continent with no reptiles.

Out of time

Positioned neatly across all the lines of longitude, Antarctica doesn’t fall solely into any one particular time zone. Some areas experience 24 hours of light around June and 24 hours of dark around December. There aren’t that many people living in Antarctica, so there hasn’t been much of a need to pin down a time zone. Most scientists or researchers there adopt the time-zone of the country they deal most with, or the closest geographical neighbour, so you’ll find different stations operate on different times.

Coldest desert

You won’t find any cacti, cowboys or tumble weeds in Antarctica, but it is officially classified as a desert. The coldest, driest and windiest continent, it only sees about 200mm of year along the coast, and its highest recorded temperature is 17.5°C. It hasn’t always been a place of ice and snow, however, as more than 170 million years ago is was part of supercontinent Gondwana and while it was further north it would have had a tropical climate, been covered in forests and been home to ancient life forms. In addition to coping with the cold and wind, people who spend time in Antarctica need to protect themselves against sunburn, as the snow reflects the ultraviolet light.

No polar bears!

Antarctica has no reptiles and very few insects, but it also has no polar bears. That’s right, all those pics you see of fluffy white bears adrift on chunks of ice, definitely not from down south. You’ll only find those impressive ursine giants in the Arctic in the Northern Hemisphere. Considering the threats to polar bears natural habitat up north, there have been some studies into whether it would be viable to relocate them to Antarctica, but while they’d have plenty to eat (sorry penguins and seals!) the logistics and impact on their new home would be problematic.

Blood Falls

Waterfalls are spectacular natural phenomenon: the thundering water cascading from a great height, the light casting rainbows in the perpetual spray, the cliff face running red with what looks very much like sludgy blood… Like something out of a horror film, the aptly-named Blood Falls in East Antarctica oozes saltwater with such high levels of iron oxide that it has turned a startling shade of red. While researchers initially believed the colour was due to red algae, it was discovered that the water originates in a brine lake beneath the Taylor Glacier and it picks up the iron from the surrounding rock as it moves towards the surface.

Picture credit: Peter Rejcek

Penguins galore

Earlier we mentioned how hypothetically transplanted polar bears would most definitely have plenty to eat considering all the penguins you find in Antarctica. And what a feast it would be, considering there are at least 17 different species of them to be found there. And of those, seven of the species are found nowhere else in the world. Some of the penguins you may spot in Antarctica include Adelie, Emperor, Chinstrap, Gentoo and King. In March 2018 a supercolony of about 1.5 million Adelie penguins was discovered in the Danger Islands near Antarctica.

Penguins on the snow

Freshest water

With ice as far as the eye can see, Antarctica also has a large amount of water in liquid form as well. In fact, beneath all that ice you’ll find around 300 lakes which stay liquid thanks to the heat coming from the Earth’s core. Home to about 90% of the world’s ice, Antarctica is also where you’ll find 70% of the world’s fresh water. However, don’t be in a rush to have that water released from its icy form, as such a large thaw would see a drastic rise in sea levels resulting in extreme damage to coastal areas.

Feeling inspired? Speak to one of our expert travel designers today and start planning your trip of a lifetime to Antarctica.

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