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15 Fun Facts About Antarctica | Poseidon Expeditions

Facts about Antarctica

Terra incognita for centuries, a magnet for brave explorers for the last 200 years and a bucket-list item for modern travelers – Antarctica is a one-of-a-kind place full of incredible discoveries!

In brief:

  • It’s the coldest, driest and windiest continent on Earth
  • It’s the highest continent in the world with an average elevation of 2,500m (8,200 feet).

  • It’s the largest ice storage on the planet (containing 90% of the world’s ice).

  • It covers over 14 million km2 (5.4 million square miles).

  • It hosts 60% of the world’s fresh water.

  • The lowest temperature on Earth, -89.2C (-128.6 F), was recorded at the Vostok Station in Antarctica on July 21, 1983.

Ready to start exploring? Read on and get a taste of what awe-inspiring adventures the White Continent has to offer with our 15 favorite fun facts about Antarctica!

Antarctica Holds Most of the World's Fresh Water

1. Antarctica Holds Most of the World's Fresh Water

It’s the largest freshwater reserve on the planet! Antarctica’s vast ice sheet holds 90% of the Earth's surface fresh water (60% of the Earth’s fresh water in total) and most of it is ice. The Antarctic ice sheet is on average 2 km (1.2 miles) thick and in some places reaches even 4.5 km (2.7 miles). If Antarctica’s ice sheet would entirely melt, global sea levels would rise by 70m (230 feet)!

Did you know that water for Antarctic stations is rationed? Even though surrounded by the world’s largest freshwater reserve, turning it into usable water is difficult. Water needs to be kept from freezing and is filtered (through Reverse Osmosis). Water conservation is key and most stations will give its residents just three minutes to shower each day (less when reserves run low)!

2. Antarctica is a Polar Desert

No camels and no heat, but lots of ice and some penguins – the entire continent of Antarctica is a polar desert. It’s the driest continent in the world with only around 10cm (3.9 inches) of precipitation annually. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are the driest part of Antarctica and are free of ice and snow. These anomalies are located near the Ross Ice Shelf. Did you know that Antarctica is also the windiest continent? Katabatic winds can reach up to 320km/h (200mph), blowing through the valleys, heating as they descend from Antarctic mountain ranges and thus evaporating water, ice and snow.

Antarctica is a Polar Desert

3. Antarctica Was Once a Large Forest

Would you believe that this southernmost continent harboring the majority of the world’s ice reserves was once a lush rainforest? Around 90 million years ago, the South Pole (located on the East Antarctic Plateau) was warm and tropical with annual average temperatures of at least 12C (53F). Global sea levels were around 170 m (560 feet) higher than today. Even south of the Antarctic Circle, despite the four-month polar night, evidence of a temperate rainforest has been discovered using sediment samples obtained from drilling into the seabed in West Antarctica.

4. The Antarctic Peninsula is One of the Most Rapidly Warming Areas on Earth

There are 15 major ice shelves on the Antarctic continent and due to climate change, Antarctic ice has been melting and raising global sea levels since at least 1993. According to NASA Science, the ice sheets of West and East Antarctica shed 150 billion metric tons annually in 2022-23. And the situation on the Antarctic Peninsula is worse than on the rest of the continent. For the past 50 years, it has been one of the most rapidly warming areas on Earth, at a speed five times faster than the global average! This is not only evident on land, but also in the surrounding ocean waters. Receding sea ice levels have reached record lows over the past three years.

5. There is No Antarctic Time Zone

What’s the local time in Antarctica? Well, that really depends on which station you’re at. Technically all meridians converge at the geographic South Pole, but in practice, Antarctica covers various time zones, set by the research stations at their own discretion, such as time zones at their country of origin or supplier country. There is no unified Antarctic time zone as the Antarctic Treaty System does not recognize ownership of any nation and thus no country in the world gets to set Antarctica’s clock.!

What about time zones aboard a cruise ship? Don’t worry, you don’t have to adapt to different time zones daily (and thus there is no risk that you’ll miss one of the fabulous breakfasts aboard). When departing on an expedition cruise to the White Continent, Antarctica tour operators usually choose the time zone at the departure port. If you depart in Ushuaia (Argentina), you’ll stay on Argentinian Standard Time throughout your trip.

6. All Directions Lead North

If you find yourself at the South Pole, any step you take will lead north. From the southernmost point on the planet, the terms West and East Antarctica sound nonsensical. If this turns your orientation upside down, don’t worry, Greenwich comes to your aid. To get your senses in order and avoid confusion, zero longitude (Greenwich, located in the UK) sets your inner compass straight by marking the reference point. If you face Greenwich while standing on the South Pole, everything to your right is East Antarctica and to your left is West Antarctica.

The Antarctic Peninsula is One of the Most Rapidly Warming Areas on Earth

7. Antarctica Has Active Volcanoes

Did you know that Antarctica is home to two active volcanoes? Mount Erebus is the southernmost active volcano in the world, located on Ross Island (adjoining the Ross Ice Shelf). At 3,794m (12,448 feet), it’s also the second highest mountain on the Antarctic continent. At the summit of Mount Erebus, you’ll find one of five lava lakes on Earth, a churning molten rock lake, occasionally spewing out lava bombs. Around the crater, condensing steam from the volcano creates twisted ice statues.

The second active volcano is Deception Island of the South Shetland Islands. If you look closely at the shape of the island, you’ll recognize that it’s the caldera of an active volcano, which caused serious destruction to local research stations in the late 1960s. If you want to see this incredible island, the best way is to board a cruise. You can actually visit the island, and even soak in its famous hot springs!

8. Antarctica Has a Red Flowing Subglacial Lake

One of the most interesting scientific facts about Antarctica is the existence of lakes discovered beneath the massive ice sheet. Lake Vostok, a subglacial lake, is located approximately 4,000m (13,100 feet) beneath the ice sheet. These lakes are full of surprises and have been keeping scientists busy for decades. Lake Bonney, a 40m (131 feet) deep lake, surfaces right under the Taylor Glacier in the McMurdo Dry Valleys (with their iconic Blood Falls). The blood-red water was long believed to contain red algae, until in 2017 scientists found the culprit of the Antarctic blood-bath to originate from iron (which reacts with air, thereby giving the falls their iconic color).

9. Antarctica Has Its Own Treaty

Imagine a huge continent like Antarctica, a vast icy land, but no owner. After its discovery by Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen in 1820 and further surveys by various famous explorers, it became apparent that it was void of any native population. Thus, several nations raced to make their claims to the newly found land, raising tension among the international community. To avoid any serious conflicts, the Antarctic Treaty was signed in December 1959, ensuring that Antarctica would be used jointly for peaceful purposes. Originally, twelve nations signed the treaty and as of 2024, 56 countries worldwide are on the list of signees. The Antarctic Treaty System is constantly expanding and regulates research, commercial fishing, mining and mineral exploration.

10. You’ll Find Diamond Dust Floating in Antarctica’s Air

It’s a pretty sight when tiny ice crystals hang suspended in the air, appearing like a million tiny floating diamonds. At first glance, it may look like ice fog, but once the sun is out, it will sparkle incredibly! Did you know that these tiny ice crystals facilitate sun dogs (parhelia), an optical phenomenon with bright spots on both sides of the sun? This happens when ice crystals are oriented horizontally. With a little luck you’ll see these among other phenomena such as southern lights (Aurora Australis, usually found around the magnetic South Pole) when visiting Antarctica!

Antarctica Has Active Volcanoes

11. The Antarctic Mountain Ranges Are Some of the World’s Biggest

Don’t be misled by the vast icy expanse of Antarctica; it has some of the world’s biggest mountain ranges! The Transantarctic Mountains are the fourth largest on Earth. One of the most incredible facts about Antarctica is that you can look out over the continent and not know that some of the largest mountain ranges are hidden below the ice right in front of your eyes. The Gamburtsev Mountains, for example, are approximately 1,200m (750 miles) long and about 2,700m (8,900 feet) high. And it’s not just mountains, but there are also large canyons hidden under the Antarctic ice sheet. One is believed to be twice as long as the Grand Canyon in Arizona (US).

12. There Are 80 Research Stations in Antarctica

Visiting Antarctica’s bleak landscapes, you may sometimes feel like the only person on the continent. But did you know that there are over 80 research stations set up by around 30 countries on the White Continent? Some of them are even open to visitors, such as the Amundsen-Scott base, directly on the South Pole, the Vernadsky Station and the Brown Station, located on the Antarctic Peninsula. Board an expedition cruise to Antarctica and you may be able to visit one of them. If you are a globe-trotter and want to visit all the seven continents, Antarctica is a must on your travel list!

13. Antarctica Has Only Two Flowering Plants

With so much ice on the continent, it’s hardly surprising that Antarctica doesn’t lead the world’s list of destinations for anthophile travelers. There are only two flowering plants present on the continent and you’ll only find them in the few ice-free areas. During the summer months, you can find Antarctic hair grass on the Antarctic Peninsula, and Antarctic pearlwort on the continental edge, the South Orkney Islands and the South Shetland Islands. But Antarctica is not void of life; there are various species of fungi, algae and mosses found on the driest continent in the world.

Antarctica is Home to Unique Wildlife

14. Antarctica is Home to Unique Wildlife

It’s cold, dry and incredibly remote – would you believe that Antarctica is home to some of the most incredible animals in the world? The subantarctic islands are a paradise for rare sea birds, killer whales and seals. Penguins form colonies and thrive on the Antarctic Peninsula and the subantarctic islands. You’ll find seven penguin species living in Antarctica: gentoo, adelie, chinstrap, king, macaroni, rockhopper and emperor penguins. If you want to see emperor penguins, Snow Hill Island off the Antarctic Peninsula is the best place! The friendliest among them are the always curious and very social gentoo penguins! Boarding a cruise, you’ll see them on beaches on the subantarctic islands, as well as on the peninsula. And just in case you’re wondering: no – there are no polar bears in Antarctica!

15. Antarctica was First ‘Officially’ Discovered in 1820

With modern humans being around for about the last 200,000 years, why wasn’t Antarctica discovered earlier? One of the disputed facts about Antarctica is who sighted it first. Official records acknowledge Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen as the first person to discover the continent in 1820. However in 1773, Captain James Cook crossed the Antarctic Circle (without seeing any land). The New Zealand Maori people may actually have discovered Antarctica as early as the 7th century AD.

Antarctica was First ‘Officially’ Discovered in 1820


How big is Antarctica?

The Antarctic continent covers an area of 14,200,000 km2 (5,500,000 square miles) and is divided into the East Antarctic Ice Sheet and the smaller West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The Antarctic ice sheet and sea ice account for 90% of the Earth's ice.

Do people swim in Antarctica?

Some travelers who visit Antarctica do the polar plunge! That’s a quick dip into the polar ocean at freezing temperatures and an exhilarating experience. Given the cold temperatures of the Southern Ocean, we do not recommend you stay in the water too long.

How many species are there in Antarctica?

Even though Antarctica is the coldest continent in the world, there is an abundance of life! There are over 235 animal species and over 1,142 species overall, including mosses, invertebrates and lichens.

Do fish in Antarctica really have some sort of anti-freeze?

Yes, Antarctic fish possess a protein that acts as anti-freeze. Scientists discovered that this protein binds to the tiny ice crystals inside the fish and prevents the crystals from growing.

How Many People Live in Antarctica?

There are no permanent residents in Antarctica. Personnel coming to the southernmost continent for scientific research stay on research stations all across Antarctica.

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