When standing at the geographic South Pole, the only direction you can go is North! Before beginning any study of Antarctica, this activity will guide students in discovering landmarks and terrain of Earth’s iciest and southernmost continent.
Antarctica is a continent of superlatives: the highest, driest, coldest, iciest place in the world. Students will probably know that Mt. Everest is the highest point on Earth, but Antarctica has the highest average elevation of all of the continents. It is a cold desert, even drier than the Sahara Desert, receiving less than 2” of precipitation per year and almost all of it falls as snow and ice. Because the continent stays cold year ‘round, the ice does not melt except some minimal melt near the coasts during the Antarctic summer. The ice builds up year upon year, upon centuries and millennia with depths of ice near 2 miles at the South Pole. (about 2700m/9000’) The coldest temperature ever recorded on the planet was -89.2o C (-128.6o F) at the Russian base, Vostok Station, on July 21, 1983. At the US Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the warmest temperature recorded was -12.3o C (9.9o F) on December 25, 2011, and the coldest was -89.2o C (-117.0o F) on June 23, 1982.
Antarctica is about the size of the US and Mexico combined and is divided into 2 major regions by the Trans-Antarctic Mountains: West Antarctica and East Antarctica. No one owns Antarctica, but it is governed by the Antarctic Treaty which has 48 signatory nations of which 29 are decision-making parties. The Antarctic Treaty (http://www.ats.aq/e/ats.htm) sets aside the continent to be used for peaceful purposes and scientific research, and it is fully protected by the Protocol on Environmental Protection.
Antarctica has no permanent human inhabitants, but 30 countries operate research bases on the continent along with about 35 seasonal field camps. The US has 3 permanent bases including Palmer Station on the peninsula, McMurdo Base, the largest US station on Ross Island, and the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station at the geographical South Pole.
Deep ice domes are located at various places on Antarctica. Ice core scientists are studying cores from these locations to understand how the climate has changed over the past 800,000 years.
Ice shelves, the floating edge of a glacier, can be found on the coastline surrounding Antarctica. The ice sheet covering the continent is made up of many glaciers that flow together like frozen rivers, always moving under their own weight and pulled by the force of gravity down elevation toward the ocean. When the terminus, or face, of the glacier or ice sheet meets the Southern Ocean, it stays attached to the land-based ice as it floats. Some large ice shelves are beginning to break up and scientists are studying the mechanisms that may be causing this including the warming of air temperatures, the changing of albedo (reflective surface of the ice when it develops meltwater) and the increased temperature of the ocean water that flows under the ice shelves. Ice shelves act as a “buttress” to the land-based ice slowing its flow to the sea. Because floating ice is already displacing its own volume, sea level will not be affected by ice shelf break up, but when land based ice flows into the ocean, there can be abrupt sea level rise.