Let’s learn about Antarctica

This continent is dry, windy and very cold — and home to a lot of scientific research

a gentoo penguin stands on a rock

There are more penguins than people living in Antarctica. Some of the people study the penguins.

David Merron Photography/Getty Images

Antarctica sits at the southernmost part of the planet. This continent is supercold, incredibly windy and very dry. With so little precipitation it’s actually a desert, Antarctica is covered in vast ice sheets that hide giant volcanoes and buried lakes. Millions of years ago, though, a rainforest flourished there.

No country owns Antarctica, and no people call the continent their permanent home. Instead, a treaty signed by 50 nations governs what can happen there. Destructive activities like mining and military action are banned. The environment is protected. And science is the priority. Many countries host research stations there. These include the U.S.-operated McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Scientists study everything from Earth’s past climate to meteorites to, of course, penguins. Sometimes they even study themselves.

All the ice and snow in Antarctica has locked up about 80 percent of the world’s freshwater. This seems like a fun fact until you think about global warming. That’s because the warming climate is gradually causing Antarctica’s ice to melt. While it’s still brutally cold at the South Pole, edges of this continent often get above freezing. The waters there are warming, too. The ice along the edges is melting. That makes it easier for ice on land to flow into the sea — and melt. Scientists now predict that by 2100, that melting ice could raise sea levels across the globe by 0.6 to 1.8 meters (2 to 6 feet). 

Want to know more? We’ve got some stories to get you started:

The big melt: Earth’s ice sheets are under attack Antarctica and Greenland are losing ice 3 to 6 times as quickly as in the 1980s. By 2100, the rate of loss could increase another 10-fold. (1/31/2019) Readability: 6.8

Scientists’ brains shrank after a long stay in Antarctica The isolation of a long-term mission at an Antarctic research station shrunk part of crew members’ brains, a small study suggests. (1/20/2020) Readability: 7.6

A rainforest once grew near the South Pole A forest flourished within 1,000 kilometers of the South Pole. That was a while ago, as in millions of years ago. (5/11/2020) Readability: 6.4

The Arctic and Antarctic are both cold places, but they’re very different places.

Explore more

Scientists Say: Desert

Scientists Say: Continent

Explainer: Antarctica, land of lakes

Explainer: Ice sheets and glaciers

Why Antarctica and the Arctic are polar opposites

Cool Jobs: Careers on ice

Hot on the trail of Antarctic meteorites

Secrets of the world’s extreme divers

Giant volcanoes lurk beneath Antarctic ice

To monitor penguin diet from satellites, look to poop


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You can help scientists study penguins in Antarctica and other faraway lands without ever leaving your home. Count penguins, chicks and eggs online for Penguin Watch. This citizen-science project uses aerial photos and time-lapse-camera imagery to help researchers understand how penguin populations are changing.

Sarah Zielinski is the Editor, Print at Science News Explores. She has degrees in biology and journalism and likes to write about ecology, plants and animals. She has three cats: Oscar, Saffir and Alani.

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