What Makes Up Antarctica?

December 12, 2014

The seventh and southernmost continent was the last to be discovered and remains a source of fascination and inspiration to all who encounter it.

The name Antarctica literally means “opposite to the Arctic,” and the two Polar Regions really don’t have much in common other than temperatures. While much of the Arctic is water surrounded by land, Antarctica is primarily a land mass covered by ice and surrounded by water. In fact, 90 per cent of the world’s ice can be found in Antarctica.

Iceberg in Antarctica by Samantha Crimmin

Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin

The size of Antarctica varies, based on the growing and shrinking ice sheet, but it is accepted that it is the fifth largest continent – larger than Australia/Oceania and Europe.

Although it was thought for centuries that a continent was situated at the bottom of the earth, there’s no evidence that Antarctica was discovered prior to the 19th century. The first sightings are believed to have happened in 1820, and the first landing reputedly took place in 1821. The South Pole was not reached until 1911, capping an intense period of Antarctic exploration that began in earnest in the late 1890s.

Antarctic Regions and Seas

Antarctica is physically divided into two regions – West Antarctica and East Antarctica – by the Transarctic Mountains, a range that spans the whole continent. 

The land mass of East Antarctica is estimated to be roughly the size of Australia. West Antarctica, underneath the ice, is an archipelago of islands. Its prominent feature is the Antarctic Peninsula, which reaches toward the southern tip of South America. 

The ice sheet covering the continent is the largest single piece of ice on earth. It ranges in size between 3 million and 19 million square kms, depending on the season. 

The Transarctic Mountains range is about 3,500 km long and between 100 and 300 km wide. 

Antarctic travel first involves traversing the Drake Passage, which extends about 600 miles between Cape Horn and the South Shetland Islands

The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica, and its long coastline is notched with bays and seas of varying sizes. The two largest and most prominent inlets are the Weddell Sea (Quark Expeditions was first to offer a passenger voyage here!) and the Ross Sea.

What Countries are part of Antarctica? 

Antarctica is the only continent with no native population. There is still no permanent human settlement, due to the unforgiving climate and terrain, although a few thousand people are located there on a temporary basis at one of the many research stations.

The early exploration of Antarctica took place in what is now called the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration, between 1897 and 1922. Many expeditions originated from the United Kingdom, which made the first territorial rights to parts of the continent and its surrounding islands. Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, New Zealand and Norway have since made similar claims. 

Many of the above nations recognize each other’s claims, but the claims of Argentina, Chile and the U.K. overlap. Other countries do not recognize any territorial claims at all. Some, like Russia and the United States, have reserved the right to make claims of their own at a future date.

The Antarctic Treaty, established in 1961, was intended to set aside the continent as a scientific preserve. It does not recognize, dispute or establish territorial claims, and no new claims may be made while the treaty exists. Military activity and mining are forbidden except for the purposes of peaceful scientific research.


Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin

Antarctica’s Environment

The treaty also established that nuclear waste must not be disposed of in Antarctica. It was an early attempt to maintain the purity of the continent’s ecosystem.

In 1998, the treaty was supplemented by the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty. It was spearheaded and promoted by Greenpeace and has been signed by all major treaty members. 

Many other resolutions have been implemented to preserve Antarctica’s ecology and wildlife. Commercial fisheries are strictly controlled, and other animals, including birds, may not be killed or captured without a permit. As well, strict measures are taken to ensure that waste from ships and bases is properly treated and broken down before it is disposed of. In some cases, this means removing it entirely from the continent.


Photo credit: Samantha Crimmin

Antarctica is a massive, diverse region that changes with the sun, wind and sea ice each and every time we visit. To plan your Antarctic vacation, or learn more about Antarctic wildlife, regions and the voyages we offer, visit the Quark Expeditions website.

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