Perhaps one of the most captivating and mystical places on earth – particularly given how recently it was discovered – scientists throughout the last few centuries have worked hard to help us understand more about the seventh continent. While it remains a place of unique wildlife and stark, inhospitable stretches of ice where much is still unknown, what we do know is utterly fascinating. So here’s our list of the ten most gripping facts about Antarctica.
1. Antarctica was only found relatively recently
No one actually set eyes upon Antarctica until 1819, making it the last continent to be discovered. However, a belief in the existence of a large southern landmass was commonly held as far back as the ancient Greeks, and this idea became even more convincing after the discovery of Tierra del Fuego in the 16th-century.
2. Antarctica isn’t owned by anyone
Although various countries have attempted to stake a claim to Antarctica over the centuries, in 1959 the Antarctic Treaty was signed by 48 countries and designated the continent as “a natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”
3. Antarctica is far bigger – and more important – than you think
At over 5.4 million sq.miles (14 million km²) it’s almost twice the size of the United States. It’s also home to 90% of all the ice on the planet – something hugely important to climate change scientists given that if it all melted, the oceans would rise by frightening 200 to 210 ft. (60 to 65m).
4. Although its size actually changes according to the seasons
Expanding sea ice along the coast leads to Antarctica nearly doubling in size during the winter months. It is for this reason that cruise ships tours to Antarctica only visit during the summer.
5. It doesn’t have a time zone
Yup – that’s not a mistake. There is no timezone in Antarctica. You can practically pick your own, although most of the scientists who live for periods on the continent choose to go via the time zone of their home country.
6. It receives less precipitation than the Sahara Desert
Another of the surprising facts about Antarctica is that it’s actually considered to be a desert. Only 2 inches of rain (50mm) fall here on average per year, making it dryer than the Sahara Desert.
7. But a regular showering of meteorites
While meteorites don’t crash here more regularly than anywhere else on the planet, spotting a meteorite against the white of the ice is easy, meaning they’re found in Antarctica more easily than in most other places. Since the 1970s, more than 10,000 meteorites have been discovered here – some of which date back to a whopping 700,000 years ago.
8. And its turbulent winds are legendary
While the Drake Passage and Cape Horn further north might be feared for their tumultuous winds, Antarctica faces gales that regularly reach up to 200 mph (320 kph).
9. Antarctica isn’t all ice
No, Antarctica actually is home to at least two active volcanoes. Although others probably do exist, they have yet to breach the ice. Mount Erebus is the highest and located on the Ross Ice Shelf in East Antarctica, while the other is close to Deception Island, a spot on cruise ship itineraries to Antarctica where passengers can stop to swim thanks to slightly warmer waters caused by the nearby volcanic activity.
10. The strangest of all facts about Antarctica is that it was once a lush, green region
Although you couldn’t tell it now, scientists have uncovered fossils indicating that 50 million years ago forests and complex ecosystems of animals and birds once covered this now frigid, windy desert. Research into the continent continues to inform us about the incredible changes that our planet has experienced over the past millions of years, making Antarctica an important place for scientific investigation.