There’s more to Antarctica than cold weather and penguins, though it does have plenty of both. And while we’ve learned much about the elusive continent since it was first discovered around 200 years ago, it maintains an air of mystery unlike few places on Earth. Interesting facts abound when it comes to Antarctica — here are eight of them.
Antarctica Is the World’s Largest Desert
The word “desert” tends to evoke images of extreme heat, cacti, and vast expanses of sand. The technical definition is less fanciful: an area that receives no more than 25 centimeters (10 inches) of precipitation per year. With that in mind, it’s perhaps less surprising that Antarctica is the world’s largest desert. At 5.5 million square miles, it edges out both the Arctic (5.4 million square miles) and Sahara (3.5 million) deserts, with the Arabian and Gobi deserts rounding out the top five. Antarctica only receives about 6.5 inches of precipitation in a given year, almost all of it as snow.
Antarctica Is the Coldest, Windiest, Driest, and Highest Continent
Antarctica is a land of extremes, and it ranksfirst among the seven continents on several scales. In addition to being the coldest continent, it’s also the windiest, driest, and highest one. The coldest Antarctic temperature (and thus the coldest on Earth) was recorded at Vostok Station in July 1983 at -128.6°F. The highest wind speed recorded on the continent was at the Dumont d’Urville station in July 1972 at 199 mph. The average elevation is 8,200 feet— by comparison, the average elevation in the U.S. is a measly 2,500 feet There’s No Official Time Zone in Antarctica
What time is it in Antarctica right now? There are a lot of different ways to answer that question, as the world’s fifth-largest continent doesn’t have an official time zone. Instead, some research stations (there are about 50permanent stations on the continent) are synched up to the local time in the countries they hail from, while others observe the local time of whichever country is closest (for example, the Palmer Station, an American outpost, keeps Chile Summer Time, or CLST). Daylight Saving Time complicates matters further, with stations such as Troll (from Norway) switching from Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) to Central European Summer Time (CEST) when the clocks change in Europe.
At Least 11 Babies Have Been Born in Antarctica
On January 7, 1978, something happened that had never happened before: A human was born in Antarctica. His name was Emilio Marcos Palma, and his parents were part of Esperanza Base, an Argentine research station. Ten more babies came into the world there throughout the rest of the decade and into the ’80s, all of them either Argentine or Chilean, with some commentators suggesting this was a concerted effort from both countries to strengthen their respective claims to Antarctica. Because all 11 survived, Antarctica technically has the lowest infant mortality rate of any continent: 0%.
Antarctica Has a Lake So Salty It Doesn’t Freeze
Antarctica is known for its permafrost, but at least one part of it never freezes: Deep Lake, which is so salty — 10 times more than the ocean, which puts it on a similar level as the Dead Sea — that it stays liquid even at extreme temperatures. It’s considered one of the planet’s least productive ecosystems, as the cold and hypersalinity prevent almost all life from thriving there (although it is home to a collection of extremophiles — organisms that thrive in the most extreme conditions on Earth). Deep Lake is 180 feet below sea level and only gets saltier at increased depths.
Antarctica Is Bigger Than the United States
Though most map projections don’t convey it very well, Antarctica is big — really big. With an area of 5.4 million square miles, it's both the fifth-largest continent (ranking ahead of both Europe and Australia) by size and roughly one-and-a-half times the size of the United States.
No One’s Sure Who Discovered Antarctica
Long before a human set foot on Antarctica, explorers were obsessed with learning more about the Antarctic Circle. The circle was first crossed in 1773 by Captain James Cook, but it took another 47 years before Antarctica was actually seen by human eyes. The question of who can actually lay claim to that achievement remains disputed more than 200 years later, with Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen reporting having seen “an ice shore of extreme height” on January 27, 1820 and Edward Bransfield of the Royal Navy describing “high mountains covered with snow” on January 30 of the same year.
What’s known as the Heroic Age of Antarctic Exploration wouldn’t begin until the end of the 19th century, with Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen and his team first reaching the South Pole on December 14, 1911 — a feat matched just five weeks later by Brit Robert Falcon Scott.
Antarctica Is Officially Dedicated to Peaceful Purposes
Though some countries have tried to claim it for their own, Antarctica doesn’t belong to any nation, government, or other entity. That was made official when 12 countries — Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Chile, France, Japan, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and the United States — signed the Antarctic Treaty on December 1, 1959. That this happened during the Cold War is no coincidence — the treaty was, among other things, an arms-control agreement setting aside the entire continent as a scientific preserve where no military activity is allowed.
A total of 54 countries now abide by the agreement, which has three key provisions: “Antarctica shall be used for peaceful purposes only,” “freedom of scientific investigation in Antarctica and cooperation toward that end … shall continue,” and “scientific observations and results from Antarctica shall be exchanged and made freely available.” All signatories have abided by the treatment, and Antarctica remains a hub of important research today.