What is Antarctica?

The word Antarctica comes from the Greek language, antarktikos, which means “opposite to the Arctic”. In turn, Arctic comes from the Greek word arktikos, which means “of the bear”, in reference to the northern constellation called Osa Menor, in which is the Polar Star, which marks the North Pole. Therefore, antarktikos means “opposite to the bear”; that is to say, it alludes to the South Pole, which is located in this continent.

Antarctica is the southernmost continent on Earth, encompassing territories south of the 60º S parallel, the region referred to in the Antarctic Treaty. It has an almost circular shape, from which the Antarctic Peninsula stands out, projected towards South America, with a diameter of about 4500 km and a surface of about 14 million km2, which translates into the fourth largest continent; of this, less than 1% is free of ice.

It has a natural limit located between 55° and 58° south latitude, called Antarctic Convergence, which is an important border from the biological and oceanographic point of view. This limit is defined by the most intense current in the world, called the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which surrounds the continent in a W-E direction.

The average Antarctic is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent on the planet (more than 2000 m above sea level).

It is crossed by the Transantarctic Mountain Range, some 4,000 km long, which divides the continent into two unequal parts: Continental Antarctica and Eastern Antarctica. The latter is made up of very old rocks and covered by a layer of ice that can be more than 4,500 m thick. Western Antarctica, a sector located south of South America that includes the Antarctic peninsula, the rocks are more recent, the ice cover is thinner and, in addition, is the highest mountain on the continent, Mount Vinson (4,892 m above sea level). In this portion of the continent, in recent decades there has been a more intense increase in temperature and loss of ice than in eastern Antarctica.

The average temperature in January, the warmest month of the summer, ranges from 0.4 ºC on the coast to -40 ºC in the interior of the continent. During the winter, the average is between -23 ºC and -68 ºC, respectively. The minimum temperature recorded was -89 ºC at the Russian Antarctic Base in Vostok.

Antarctica, despite having the largest freshwater reserve, is considered a desert (except for the coastal and island areas of Antarctica) due to low atmospheric humidity, low rainfall, and in addition, being water in the form of ice or snow, is not available for flora and fauna.