About Antarctica

December 13, 2000 2 min read

Adapted from the United States Antarctic Program Participant Guide, 2000-2002 edition, National Science Foundation, 4201 Wilson Boulevard, Arlington, Virginia 22230.


This land-based continent is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on earth. The continent is covered by an ice sheet 4,776 meters deep. This ice makes up approximately 90 percent of all the world’s ice (by volume) and 70 percent of all the world’s fresh water. There are many penguins and abundant sea life— but no indigenous peoples.

Who Owns It?
No one nation owns Antarctica. The Antarctic Treaty, which has been signed by 44 countries, reserves the area south of 60 degrees south as a zone for the peaceful conduct of research.

Treaty nations coordinate and cooperate to maximize search results and logistics requirements.

How Cold Is It?:
The mean annual temperature at South Pole Station is minus 56oF. During the Austral Summer, temperatures at McMurdo Station may reach as high as 40oF, while at South Pole Station, the summer temperature may reach 0oF. Palmer Station has a milder climate, with summer temperatures reaching as high as 55oF.

Science: Due to a variety of unique conditions, Antarctica provides excellent conditions for a variety of scientific research including global warming, ozone changes, climatology, earth sciences, glaciology, astronomy, UV radiation, oceanic circulation, marine ecosystems, and meteorite studies, to name but a few.

Weather Update: The NSF media relations representative to the Office of Polar Programs, Peter West, reports that since reliable records began to be kept in 1957, the previous record snowfall for November was in 1971. McMurdo got 20.6 inches that year.

This year, the station recorded more than 25 inches of snow in the month of November alone.

The bad weather has caused numerous flight delays or cancellations for planes traveling the “air bridge” to Antarctica from New Zealand, and in many cases, around the continent itself.

December also started out with heavy snowfall.

The last few days McMurdo has had a reprieve, with “warm” sunshine heating the dark volcanic surface of Ross Island and causing impressive melting. On one day, the mercury reportedly “soared” to the upper 30’s Fahrenheit.

“The prevailing weather pattern here in the summer is clear skies and bright sunshine, so let’s hope it holds,” Mr. West said in an e-mail from McMurdo.

—Image courtesy National Science Foundation