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Antarctica – a frozen ice sheet that covers some 5,500,000 square miles at the very bottom of our planet – is perhaps the last great undiscovered land on earth. From space it stands out in stark contrast to the blue and green of the rest of our globe. From our vantage point it is no less striking. Averaging 6,500 feet in thickness, Antarctica contains 90% of the earth’s ice. Only about 5% of the land area of Antarctica is visible. If all of it’s ice were to defrost, the levels of the world’s oceans would rise by an average of 175 feet.

It wasn’t until the mid 18th Century that man began to seriously explore the Southern hemisphere. In 1772, famed British Explorer James Cook set out on a three year voyage to latitudes far to the south. Although he circled Antarctica, ice prevented him from actually sighting any of the land mass. During the early 1800s seal hunters ventured into the area and saw parts of the mainland as well as outlying islands. Sporadic encounters with Antarctica were made over the next century but it wasn’t until 1903 that an effort was made to reach the South Pole. It was undertaken by Robert Falcon Scott who managed to push to within 575 miles of his goal. Six years later the Pole was reached by Norwegian Adventurer Roald Amundsen. A month after that, Scott tried to emulate the feat. However, he and his four companions died on the return trip. It would be another 46 years before the South Pole was reached again. From then onwards, man began to study and learn about this foreboding, freezing part of his world. What did he find out?

The Antarctic weather helps to control the atmosphere all around the globe. It produces more cold air than any other place on earth. The ice crisp air rolls down the polar slopes toward the coast, building up to gusts of 145 miles per hour. Eventually this wind sweeps across Chile and Argentina and parts of Australia and New Zealand.

The Antarctic Ocean is colder and less chilly than the other oceans of the world. When the waters flowing south from the northern oceans meet the cold Antarctic waters, they turn eastwards to form the Circumpolar Current, which travels in an irregular path completely around the globe.

Due to the extreme weather conditions, little in the way of plant life survives here. Because of the long Antarctic ‘Night’, over 800 species of mosses, bacteria, moulds and lichens lie dormant for long periods, only to come to life during short summer bursts. The animal life, however, is abundant. Nearly all of these animals are seen near the edge of the ice sheet or actually in the water. Seals, Penguins, terns, South Polar skua, Antarctic Petrel as well as albatrosses, gulls and commarants all make their home here.

Today Antarctica is a natural laboratory for Scientists. Geologists are currently working to discover what lies beneath the giant crust. Biophysicists, glaciologists and geophysicists also visit the region to study and explore. Antarctic Stations have been established by some nations, with the American ‘McMurdo” Base being located on the Pacific side of the Continent. McMurdo Base has an average population of 900 in the summer and 200 in the winter.

There is still much to explore in Antarctica. As new facts are revealed we will undoubtedly appreciate more and more how important this Frozen Southern Land is to the rest of the earth.