This story was created for the Google Expeditions project by ePublishing Partners and AirPano, now available on Google Arts & Culture
The harsh, isolated continent of Antarctica surrounds the South Pole. Only a relatively small number of living things can survive on this vast polar plateau, which is almost completely covered in ice.
Yet its environment affects ocean currents, climate, and food webs around the world. On this coldest place on Earth, temperatures in winter can reach -70° C. On the coasts, temperatures can go as low as -30° C.
Average summer temperatures are warmer but still frequently below freezing.
Weather and Climate
Antarctica’s climate is extremely cold, especially around the South Pole. Along the coasts, there are fierce winds and frequent storms. The rest of Antarctica’s climate is very dry. The high polar plateau gets only about 50 mm of precipitation annually.
Thick ice gives Antarctica an average elevation of about 2,200 meters. The continent’s ice cover looks solid, but it’s constantly changing. Coastal ice partially thaws in summer and refreezes in winter, so the continent’s edges frequently expand and contract.
The coastal waters around Antarctica are extra-rich in nutrients such as algae and krill (tiny crustaceans). Krill are so dense in Antarctic waters that whales and other animals can feed on them by the ton.
The Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula is a long finger of land that reaches north toward the southern tip of South America. It is the warmest part of Antarctica, and therefore the part most visited by scientists and tourists.
The Antarctic Peninsula has many volcanoes, some of which are still active. The volcanoes on the Antarctic Peninsula are similar to those of the Andes Mountains of South America.
Glaciers are large masses of ice that form on land. Glaciers look solid, but they are always changing and moving. Mountain glaciers flow down the slopes of mountains, with their direction guided by the mountain valleys. Ice shelves are glaciers that spread out over the ocean.
About three fourths of the freshwater on Earth is stored in glaciers, so what happens to the glaciers of Antarctica is important to all the world’s living things.
Fjords and Straits
The coastline of the Antarctic Peninsula is rugged. There are steep mountains along its shores. Fjords—long, narrow inlets of the ocean—snake between the coastal mountains. Offshore there are chains of islands, separated from the mainland only by narrow straits.
This geography is similar to the southwestern coast of South America. Greenland and Norway also have similar coastal areas.
There are archipelagos, or chains of islands, off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula. Many of these islands appear only in the summer months, which are the winter months in the Northern Hemisphere.
In winter, the islands are connected to each other or to the mainland by shelves of solid ice.
Port Lockroy is an outpost operated by the United Kingdom Antarctic Heritage Trust (UKAHT). It is located on Goudier Island, in the Antarctic Peninsula. The British built the station during World War II for use as a military base.
Now scientists at the station monitor penguin populations and the impact of human activity on the environment. Thousands of tourists visit the station every summer.
Port Lockroy is open to visitors during the Antarctic Summer (the winter months of the Northern Hemisphere). The number of visitors is carefully controlled, and there are strict guidelines for visitors’ behavior. Tourists arrive on ships that have to anchor offshore.
They reach Port Lockroy in smaller landing craft.
Most tourists come to Port Lockroy to take pictures of the Gentoo penguins. About half of the island is for penguins only. On the inhabited section of the island, the birds have grown accustomed to humans snapping, clicking, and flashing.
These half-cylinder metal buildings were common during World War II. This hut has been rebuilt and serves as the dormitory for the station staff.
The main building at Port Lockroy serves as a museum and post office. The post office receives and sends mail from all over the world. Stamps from Port Lockroy help raise money to support the activities of UKAHT.
Even though most of the world’s penguins do not live in Antarctica, penguins have become symbols of the frozen continent. These large birds cannot fly, but they are excellent swimmers. They live in large breeding colonies, some of which contain hundreds of thousands of birds.
Penguins feed on fish, krill, and other animals that live in the ocean.
Gentoo penguins, the species you see here, live in the northern part of the Antarctic Peninsula and on islands offshore. They can swim faster than any other underwater birds and can dive as far as 200 meters down. Gentoo penguins form colonies next to sandy beaches.
Their physical characteristics include white patches above the eyes and bright red-orange beaks.
Penguin Social Behavior
One reason penguins are so fascinating to observe is that they often seem to act like humans. They live in large colonies and form smaller social units within the colonies. For example, after they are about a month old, chicks form protective groups with other newborns.
This frees their parents to gather more food. Penguins also squabble with each other, or just exchange information. Each penguin species makes a distinctive sound.
Like other penguins, Gentoo penguins are mostly monogamous. They form pairs for breeding and stay with the same partners. The females lay their eggs in October and November, which are spring months in the Antarctic. This panorama was captured in November.
Gentoo penguin parents take turns incubating the eggs and feeding the newborn chicks.
Leopard seals, also called sea leopards, look cute, but to penguins they are deadly predators. Sea leopards and Gentoo penguins share the coasts of Antarctica. Both animals are expert swimmers and divers.
Leopard seals live in the Antarctic and sub-Antarctic regions. Although they prefer to live on ice packs out in the water, they sometimes come ashore on island or mainland beaches. While some other species of seals live in herds, leopard seals are solitary.
Like all seals, they spend most of their time in the water.
Like other seals, sea leopards eat fish and krill. They are the only seals that also eat warm-blooded animals, such as penguins and other species of seals. Leopard seals also steal food from each other.
Leopard seals get their name from their spotted coats. They have no ears, extra-long teeth, and elongated flippers. Like all seals, sea leopards have a streamlined shape that allows them to cut through the water efficiently. Females are larger than males.
An adult female can be up to 3.5 meters long and weigh as much as 380 kilograms.
The first known human contacts with Antarctica took place in 1820. Since then, explorers and scientists from many nations have visited Antarctica, set up study stations and military bases, and claimed large parts of Antarctica’s land.
However, thanks to the Antarctic Treaty of 1961, the nations with interests in Antarctica now work together to ensure peaceful uses of Antarctica and its surrounding waters.
The nations also share the results of their scientific discoveries and together plan for the future of the continent.
Antarctica is physically isolated, but it still shares its atmosphere with the rest of Earth. Air pollution reaches Antarctica by means of the huge air currents that circulate around the globe.
Scientists are studying the relationship between global air pollution and the reduction in ozone that happens every spring in Antarctica’s atmosphere.
In addition to larger global cycles, there are rapidly circulating currents of air and ocean water in the regions where the warm waters of the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic Oceans meet the cold waters off the Antarctic continent.
This convergence of circulating currents helps create climate and weather patterns around the world.
On the Antarctic Peninsula, the warmest part of Antarctica, the ice is melting at a rate that alarms many scientists. The melting ice is affecting the habitats of sea leopards, penguins, and other marine creatures.
Because glaciers consist of fresh water, their melting causes a decrease in the salinity, or amount of salt, in the surrounding ocean. Scientists are trying to predict the effects of this change on life in the ocean.
As more and more people travel to Antarctica, the human impact on the environment is becoming more noticeable. On some of the sub-Antarctic islands, alien species such as dogs, cats, rats, and mice have already appeared, causing havoc among local animal populations.
In recent years local air and water pollution have also increased because of the arrival of more tourists by air and sea. New research stations and the electricity they require also increase the human impact on Antarctica.