The ‘Know Your Region’ series is designed to support unit and individual professional military education on the South East Asian region and beyond. It’s important for all serving members of our military to have a foundational knowledge of the countries and lands surrounding Australia.
ANTARCTICA – INFORMATION
On this page:
- Australian Antarctic Division
- People and Society
Antarctica is the Earth’s southernmost continent. It contains the geographic South Pole and is situated in the Antarctic region of the Southern Hemisphere, almost entirely south of the Antarctic Circle, and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. At 14.2 million square kilometres – 285,000 km2 ice-free, 13.915 million km2 ice-covered – it is the fifth-largest continent in terms of total area. Larger than both Oceania and Europe, and nearly twice the size of Australia. This makes it the second largest country in the world behind Russia. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice that averages 1.9 kilometres in thickness. It is a land of extremes and not only the coldest place, but also the windiest, highest (on average), and driest on the planet.
The Antarctic is a remote area in the Southern Hemisphere encompassed by the Antarctic Convergence. The Antarctic Convergence is an uneven line of latitude where cold, northward-flowing Antarctic waters meet the warmer waters of the world’s oceans. The continent covers approximately 20% of the Southern Hemisphere, but it was not until 1840 was it established that Antarctica was a continent and not just a group of islands. The coastline of 17,968 km is surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean. The continent is mainly composed of East and West Antarctica, which are separated by a chain of mountains called the Transantarctic Mountains. The highest elevation is Vinson Massif which is 4,892 metres and located in the Ellsworth Mountains. Antarctica contains many other mountains on both the main continent and the surrounding islands. The lowest known land point in Antarctica is hidden in the Denman Glacier at -3,500 metres; at its surface is the deepest ice yet discovered and the world's lowest elevation not under seawater. However, the average elevation is 2,300 metres.
Without any ice, Antarctica would emerge as a giant peninsula and archipelago of mountainous islands, known as Lesser Antarctica, and a single large landmass about the size of Australia, known as Greater Antarctica. These regions have different geologies. Greater Antarctica, or East Antarctica, is composed of older, igneous and metamorphic rocks. Lesser Antarctica, or West Antarctica, is made up of younger, volcanic and sedimentary rock. Lesser Antarctica, in fact, is part of the ‘Ring of Fire,’ a tectonically active area around the Pacific Ocean. Tectonic activity is the interaction of plates on Earth’s crust, often resulting in earthquakes and volcanoes. Mount Erebus, located on Antarctica’s Ross Island, is the southernmost active volcano on Earth. The majority of the islands and archipelagos of Lesser Antarctica are volcanic and heavily glaciated. Minor eruptions are frequent and lava flow has been observed in recent years. Other dormant volcanoes may potentially be active.
The Antarctic Ice Sheet dominates the region. The ice block dramatically grows in size from about 3 million km2 at the end of summer to about 19 million km2 by winter. Ice sheet growth mainly occurs at the coastal ice shelves, primarily the Ross Ice Shelf and the Ronne Ice Shelf. Ice shelves are floating sheets of ice that are connected to the continent. Glacial ice moves from the continent’s interior to these lower-elevation ice shelves at rates of 10 to 1,000 metres per year.
Antarctica has an extremely cold, dry climate. Winter temperatures along Antarctica’s coast generally range from -10° Celsius to -30°C. During the summer, coastal areas hover around 0°C but can reach temperatures as high as 9°C. The temperature in the centre of Antarctica is much lower than the temperature on the coasts. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was -89.2° Celsius. The highest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica is 18.3° C on 1 July 2021. Watch the following video for an insight into Antarctica’s extreme weather.
Antarctica has two seasons: summer and winter. The seasons are caused by the tilt of Earth's axis in relation to the sun. The direction of the tilt never changes, but as the Earth orbits the sun, different parts of the planet are exposed to direct sunlight. In summer, Antarctica is tilted towards the sun and receives more light; whereas in the winter, Antarctica is angled away from the sun leaving it in the dark.
The continent is a frozen desert with little precipitation; the South Pole receives less than 10 millimetres per year, on average. However, it is hard to measure because it always falls as snow. Sunburn is a health risk as the snow surface reflects the ultraviolet light hitting it; amplified by a thin ozone layer, read more in the #KYR – Antarctica: Special Issue. During summer, more radiation reaches the surface at the South Pole than is received at the Equator in an equivalent period.
Natural hazards in the southern continent include: katabatic (gravity-driven) winds that blow coastward from the high interior, frequent blizzards that form near the foot of the plateau, cyclonic storms that form over the ocean and move clockwise along the coast, volcanism on Deception Island and isolated areas of West Antarctica, other seismic activity, formation of chasms, and large icebergs may calve from the ice shelf. Additionally, the seas that surround Antarctica are the roughest on the planet.
The aurora australis, commonly known as the southern lights, is a glow observed in the night sky near the South Pole created by the plasma-full solar winds that pass by the Earth. Another unique spectacle is diamond dust, a ground-level cloud composed of tiny ice crystals. It generally forms under otherwise clear or nearly clear skies, so people sometimes also refer to it as clear-sky precipitation. A sun dog, a frequent atmospheric optical phenomenon, is a bright ‘spot’ beside the true sun.
Antarctica's terrain is made up of glaciers, ice shelves and icebergs. Lichens, mosses, and terrestrial algae are among the few species of vegetation that grow in Antarctica. The vegetation grows in the northern and coastal regions of Antarctica. Additionally, ice-free areas cover about 1% of the continent and are highly desired locations, such as Davis station on the coast of the ice-free Vestfold Hills. The ocean, however, teems with fish and other marine life. In fact, the waters surrounding Antarctica are among the most diverse on the planet – equivalent to the great grasslands. The ice is the soil upon which plant life grows and the herds it grazes are Antarctic krill. Trillions of them swarm in the water around Antarctica, protected by the ice until it melts. Then they are vulnerable to fish and penguins, as well as larger marine life like humpback whales. Upwelling allows phytoplankton and algae to flourish. Thousands of species, such as krill, feed on the plankton. Fish and a large variety of marine mammals thrive in the cold Antarctic waters. Blue, fin, humpback, right, minke, sei, and sperm whales have healthy populations in Antarctica.
One of the apex predators in Antarctica is the leopard seal. The leopard seal is one of the most aggressive of all marine predators. This 3-metre, 400-kilogram animal has unusually long, sharp teeth, which it uses to tear into prey such as penguins and fish. Another top predator is the killer whale or orca.
The most familiar animal of Antarctica is probably the penguin. They have adapted to the cold, coastal waters. Their wings serve as flippers as they ‘fly’ through the water in search of prey such as squid and fish. Their feathers retain a layer of air, helping them keep warm in the freezing water. The largest penguin is the emperor penguin standing up to 120 centimetres tall. Emperor penguins face freezing conditions including katabatic winds that blow off the polar plateau and intensify the cold. Emperor colonies also face blizzards of up to 200 km per hour. To keep warm, as many as ten of them pack into a huddle in an extraordinary act of co-operation in the face of common hardship. Emperors take this to an extreme by taking turns to occupy the warmest and coldest positions in the huddle. They are the only animals that breed during the Antarctic winter. Watch the following video by BBC Earth to see the southern continent’s underwater secret.
Explore the resources below.
- The segment on Antarctica runs from the start to 31.05 mins: Netflix | Our Planet - Frozen Worlds
- Interesting Engineering | What are the secrets behind Antarctica?
- Penguido | Visiting a small patch of ice holding on an iceberg twice the size of New York
- TED-Ed | The Arctic vs. the Antarctic - Camille Seaman
Australian Antarctic Division
The Australian Antarctic Division (ADD) has four permanent research stations in Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic. Mawson, Davis, and Casey stations are on the Antarctic continent. Macquarie Island station is in the sub-Antarctic. As well as one seasonal base at Wilkins Aerodrome to support intercontinental air transport. Scientists and support staff occupy all four stations year-round. The AAD manages other significant areas in the Australian Antarctic Territory (AAT). These include Heard and McDonald Islands and Commonwealth Bay. The AAD also has a weather station at Dome Argus, the highest point in Antarctica. For 31 years the MV Aurora Australis served the Australian Antarctic program and visited all three permanent stations at least once a year, as well as carrying out scheduled research in the Southern Ocean. This is now the role of RSV Nuyina.
The AAT covers nearly 5.9 million km2. That’s about 42% of Antarctica. The area is nearly 80% of the size of Australia itself. The AAT consists of all islands and territories south of 60°S, and between 45°E and 160°E, excluding the French sector of Terre Adélie, which comprises the islands and territories south of 60°S and between longitudes 136°E and 142°E.
Sovereignty over the Territory was transferred from Britain to Australia under the Australian Antarctic Territory Acceptance Act 1933, which came into effect in 1936. This act stated: “That part of the Territory in the Antarctic seas which comprises all the islands and territories, other than Adélie Land, situated south of the 60th degree south latitude and lying between the 160th degree east longitude and the 45th degree east longitude, is hereby declared to be accepted by the Commonwealth as a Territory under the authority of the Commonwealth, by the name of the Australian Antarctic Territory.”
The focus of life in Antarctica is scientific research. However, running an Antarctic station requires complex logistics and teamwork. Australia’s Antarctic stations run like small towns. They have facilities for power generation, sewage works, water making, vehicle maintenance, general living, medical and working locations. Station maintenance is done by a team of skilled professionals and trades people. Everyone – no matter what their job – takes on a range of voluntary duties. This ensures the smooth running of the station. The building layout varies for each station. The permanent stations have scientific laboratories, power generators, workshops, medical facilities, stores, and communications facilities. The living quarters include a kitchen, mess, recreation rooms, library, and accommodation. Expeditioners get together and celebrate local events throughout the year to foster a sense of community. For an introduction to the program, watch the following video.
Established in 1954, Mawson is the longest continuously operating station south of the Antarctic Circle. It is the most westerly of Australia’s three continental stations. It is situated about 5,200 km south-west of Perth. The station is named after Australia’s most significant Antarctic explorer, Sir Douglas Mawson. It is situated on an isolated outcrop of rock on the coast in Mac Robertson Land, at the edge of the Antarctic plateau. In the coastal region, the plateau surface is mostly blue ice. Occasionally the ice covered by light snow in winter and spring. Check out Mawson's webcam.
The Mawson region is one of the richest areas for seabirds in the AAT. This area supports breeding colonies of emperor and Adélie penguins, snow petrels, Antarctic petrels, Wilson’s storm petrels, cape petrels, southern giant petrels, Antarctic fulmars and skuas. Research activities at Mawson include cosmic ray, space and atmospheric physics, studies in space weather, geophysics, glaciology, ecology of seabirds and marine mammals, meteorology, and polar medicine. Two long-running investigations of penguin populations and demographics are supported out of Mawson. Many of the instruments supporting physical research operate remotely and automatically send data back to scientists in Australia.
Despite intense winds, Mawson is a particularly favourable location for a station. It has excellent access to the hinterland and surrounding coastal waters. The harbour is sheltered from ocean swells and has a depth reaching 90 metres. During the ice-free period usually experienced in February, a ship may anchor within 100 metres of the station. Barges carrying cargo take only a few minutes to travel from the ship to shore.
Living at Mawson is very comfortable. Everyone lives in the main accommodation building known as ‘the Red Shed’, in modern air-conditioned single-room dongas (Antarctic slang for bedrooms). The Red Shed also houses the surgery, lounge, kitchen and dining room. The local supermarket is a walk-in cupboard called ‘Woolies’, where all expeditioners can browse the shelves for soap and other household requirements. When blizzards inhibit fieldwork, the Red Shed has indoor climbing, a home theatre, a library, and several communal sitting areas for expeditioners to pass the time. There is a small gym in the Green Store, as well as sports equipment for volleyball and badminton, and a range of cross-country ski equipment. A spa and sauna are also available. Depending on weather and sea-ice conditions, it takes about 10 to 12 days to reach Mawson direct from Hobart by ship.
To support our deep field activities, Australia has field sites across the AAT. Australia’s field sites can be used during the Antarctic summer, they are: Beaver Lake, Béchervaise Island Huts, Cape Denison, Edgeworth David Base, Law Base, and Scullin Monolith Refuge. Home to Mawson’s Huts Historic Site and supporting field huts, Cape Denison juts northward into Commonwealth Bay in George V Land. Mawson’s Huts Historic Site is located within Antarctic Specially Protected Area (ASPA) 162. The Larsemann Hills are an ice-free area 110 km southwest of Davis research station in Princess Elizabeth Land. Law Base is located within Antarctic Specially Managed Area (ASMA) 6, Larsemann Hills. This area is jointly managed by Australia, China, India, and the Russian Federation as the countries with research stations in the area.
Additionally, Australia has links to several other locations such as Commonwealth Bay, Dome Argus, and Heard and McDonald Islands. Dome Argus has a surface elevation of 4,093 metres. It is the highest place in East Antarctica and an automatic weather station provides data from this remote site. The automatic weather station at Dome Argus was set up as part of an Australian–Chinese collaboration in January 2005. No ground-based scientific investigation had been made at this site before the arrival of the Chinese over-snow traverse team. The world’s lowest temperature ever recorded was −89.2°C in July 1983, at the Russian station Vostok, inland of Australia’s Casey station. Dome Argus is nearly 600 m higher in elevation than Vostok. This means there is a good chance that the automatic weather station at Dome Argus could record the world’s lowest surface temperature. The coldest temperature reached to date at the weather station was −82.5°C in July 2005.
For more information on the ADD, explore the resources below.
- ABC News (Australia) | What is it like to live and work in Antarctica?
- ABC Australia | From plumbing to penguins: My year working in Antarctica - Everyday Stories
- AusAntarctic | Drilling into Action
- Tom Compagnoni | Antarctica - A Week At Casey Research Station
- AusAntarctic | Australian Antarctic Station Leaders
- AusAntarctic | Farewell 'Orange Roughy'
- Polar Journal | Australian Davis Station to be renewed
- Polar Journal | New Antarctic map with even more details
- Australian Antarctic Program - News | Future investment planned as Antarctic environment protected
- Australian Antarctic Program - News | Australia to assist French Antarctic program
- Australian Antarctic Program - News | Heavy tractors chosen for Australia’s Antarctic inland ice quest
People and Society
Antarctica is a unique continent in that it does not have an indigenous population. Antarctica is too cold for people to live there for a long time. It is by far the least populated continent, with around 5,000 people in the summer and around 1,000 in the winter. Scientists take turns going there to study the ice. Tourists visit Antarctica in the summers. The oceans surrounding Antarctica are home to many types of whales, seals, and penguins. In addition, approximately 1,000 personnel, including ship's crew and scientists doing onboard research, are present in the waters of the Treaty region.
With 54 countries signatory to the Antarctic Treaty, around 30 operate through their National Antarctic Program a number of seasonal-only and year-round research stations on the continent and its nearby islands south of 60° S. This is seen in the spread of numbers by nationality in 2017, where in peak summer maximum capacity in scientific stations was 4,877 total people. Whereas in winter maximum capacity in scientific stations was 1,036 total people. This makes the population density around 0.00078 people per km2. The largest urban area is McMurdo Station, operated by the United States Antarctic Program, and contains 1,000 people in the summer or 250 people in the winter. In comparison in 2017, Australia had 243 personnel in peak summer and 52 over the winter.
Communication off the frozen continent is conducted via satellites (including mobile Inmarsat and Iridium systems) to and from all research stations, ships, aircraft, and most field parties. However, mobile connection is nearly non-existent and connection to the Internet is unstable. The ISO country code 3166-1 alpha-2 'AQ' is assigned to the entire continent regardless of jurisdiction. Different country calling codes and currencies are used for different settlements, depending on the administrating country. Thus, there are commercial cellular networks operating in a small number of locations, but no Antarctica country code has been allocated. For a closer look at how living at the south pole really works, watch the following video by Wendover Productions.
Researchers from a variety of scientific backgrounds study the Antarctic not only as a unique environment, but also as an indicator of broader global processes. Geographers map the surface of the world’s coldest and most isolated continent. Meteorologists study climate patterns, including the ozone hole that hovers over the Antarctic. Climatologists track the history of Earth’s climate using ice cores from Antarctica’s pristine ice sheet. Marine biologists study the behaviour of whales, seals, and squid. Astronomers make observations from Antarctica’s interior because it offers the clearest view of space from Earth. Even astrobiologists, who study the possibility of life outside Earth’s atmosphere, study materials found in the Antarctic. In 1984, a meteorite from Mars was found in Antarctica. The markings on this meteorite were similar to markings left by bacteria on Earth. If this meteorite, millions of years old, actually has the remains of Martian bacteria, it would be scientific evidence for life outside Earth.
Antarctica is a unique cultural place that is best defined by daily life at its diverse research stations. McMurdo Station is a U.S. research centre on the southern tip of Ross Island, a territory claimed by New Zealand. McMurdo is the largest station in Antarctica, capable of supporting 1,250 residents. Most of these residents are not scientists, but work to support station operations, construction, maintenance, and daily life. McMurdo has more than 80 buildings and operates like a small city. It has world-class laboratory and research facilities but also a firehouse, dormitories, stores, and the continent’s only ATM.
Like all Antarctic research stations, McMurdo has a specific method of receiving necessary supplies. Once a year, cargo ships bring more than 5 million kilograms of equipment and supplies, ranging from trucks and tractors to dry and frozen foods, to scientific instruments. These cargo ships can only reach Winter Quarters Bay – McMurdo’s harbour – during summer, when the pack ice can be breached by U.S. Coast Guard icebreakers. Additional supplies and personnel are flown in from Christchurch, New Zealand, when weather permits.
Davis Station is Australia’s busiest scientific research station. It is located in an ice-free area known as the Vestfold Hills. Like most research stations in Antarctica, food is very important at Davis Station. Residents live and work closely together in facilities and outdoor environments that are often very monotonous. As such, food plays an important role in providing variety to residents like those at Davis Station.
The food supply for a year at Davis Station is rationed, per person per year. Residents live on dried, tinned, vacuum-sealed, and frozen food. The chef is traditionally one of the most important people on station. They must make sure to use all commodities in a way that is both creative and sustainable. Some of the station’s most important events revolve around the chef’s creations, such as the Midwinter Dinner, a traditional, sumptuous feast first celebrated during the 1901-04 British Antarctic Expedition.
Like many of Antarctica’s research facilities, Davis Station has a hydroponic greenhouse. Hydroponics is the practice of growing plants with water and nutrients only. Hydroponics requires excellent gardeners because produce is grown without the buffering soil provides. Fresh produce adds variety and nutrition to Antarctic meals. The greenhouse also serves as a sunroom for sunlight-deprived residents, especially during the long winter months.
It is often said that ‘Below 40 degrees south there is no law; below 50 degrees south there is no God.’ Besides this saying and the harsh cold icy conditions in the continent; researchers, scientists, and explorers of both the past and the present have always found time for religion. There is no documentation on the religious beliefs in Antarctica, but there are churches and places of worship scattered across the continent and there is a consistent demand for building of sacred architecture and spiritual services on the continent. It is important to note that the exploration of Antarctica was closely linked to spiritual deeds with a lot of contributions from numerous supporters such as, for instance, the Jesuit geophysicists. Most of the early religious buildings are currently protected as significant historic monuments.
From the number of churches in Antarctica, it can be argued that the main religion practiced on the continent is Christianity. This was first introduced by Captain Aeneas Mackintosh who put up a huge memorial cross on Wind Vane Hill on Cape Evans so as to pay tribute to three members of the Imperial trans-Antarctic Expedition party led by Sir Ernest Shackleton from 1914 to 1917 who passed away in 1916.
Presently, there are over 90 science stations on the continent and most of them are only used during summer when the days are longer. The majority of the research stations have a small multipurpose room that they also use as an ad-hoc chapel. Some have, however, built their own chapels. As mentioned earlier on, there are a number of places of worship in Antarctica, including the Chapel of the Snows, the Ice Cave Catholic Chapel, and the Norwegian Lutheran Church.
Besides Christianity, there are other religions practiced in Antarctica. Some of these include Buddhism and Bahai, and as mentioned earlier, they get to carry out their religious practices at some of the churches scattered across the Antarctica. It is interesting to note that Islam is also practiced in the continent. A Pakistan program at the Jinnah Antarctic Station made Muslims come into the continent, and as a result, they brought with them their faith too. It is, however, important to note that there are no mosques in Antarctica or on any other islands nearby. Muslims in the continent have to come up with new guidelines, for instance, during the Holy month of Ramadhan where keeping and breaking a fast is linked to times of sunrise and sunset, which do not take place during polar day or night on the continent.
Antarctica can be quite harsh from freezing waters to storms, cold weather and icy terrain. At times people are left to their own devices and it is for this main reason that one will find increased places of worship during their expeditions in the continent. For those living in Antarctica, religion has offered them a sense of comfort and direction in living conditions that are quite extreme. It can be argued that religion gives people in Antarctica a sense of hope just like it does to everyone else in the globe.