Overview of Antarctic Geography

Instructor: David Wood

David has taught Honors Physics, AP Physics, IB Physics and general science courses. He has a Masters in Education, and a Bachelors in Physics.

Antarctica is the frozen desert where no human lives permanently. Learn about the geography of this truly unique part of the earth, then take a short quiz to see what you've learned.

Geography of Antarctica

Usually when we talk about geography, it's important to consider two things: the physical and natural geography of an area, and the human geography of an area - the ways that humans have affected a landscape, and the ways that landscape has affected humans. But when it comes to Antarctica, physical geography is far more significant than human. Antarctica is a cold, frozen, and mostly empty land found at the South Pole of the earth. Humans go there mostly for research and occasional tourism, though it's incredibly inhospitable, especially in the colder months.

When it comes the physical geography of Antarctica, there's plenty to think about. Antarctica is a land encased in ice, but with some highly active volcanoes. It contains sea ice, land ice, and ice shelves. It's the front line for global warming research, and home to some truly giant mountains. And it's huge. In fact, Antarctica is almost 50% larger than the USA. So discussing the geography of Antarctica isn't as simple as you might think. But in this lesson, we're going to briefly cover each of the main features of Antarctica's geography.

Regions and Human Influence

Even in a land with no permanent human inhabitants, humans still have an influence. When you look to map of Antarctica, you'll notice that it isn't empty. Humans have mapped and labeled parts of Antarctica, giving names to peaks and regions. The continent is split into three main sections. The largest is on the east side of the Transantarctic Mountains, and is called East Antarctica. The west side of the Transantarctic Mountains is called West Antarctica. And the small pointed mass that points up towards South America is called the Antarctic Peninsula.

Map of Antarctica
Map of Antarctica

Humans do visit Antarctica. Some visit to stay in one of several science stations found on the continent, and others visit for tourism purposes. Most tourists stay near the coasts, and the majority don't go beyond the Antarctic Peninsula, since this is cheaper and easier to get to. Although Antarctica isn't very attractive for colonization due to the intense cold, it also remains the last true wilderness on earth and is protected by an international agreement called the Antarctic Treaty of 1961. In this Treaty, world leaders agreed that everywhere south of 60° south latitude would remain unclaimable by any country. The treaty says that it cannot be used in military reasons, or to dispose of radioactive waste - only peaceful research can be done. This is an extremely important step that has helped protect Antarctica.

But unfortunately human influences aren't always direct. Thanks to climate change, many of the ice shelves are melting and collapsing. Although this effect is tiny in the context of Antarctica as a whole, the amount of water stored as ice in Antarctica is astronomical, and so the impact on the world's sea levels could be significant in the future.

Mountains and Volcanoes

Antarctica might look like a lump of ice, but it's really a continent. Under the ice is solid land. And that land is quite dramatic - it's a land of volcanoes and mountains. There are four known active volcanoes in Antarctica: Mounts Melbourne, Berlin, Kauffman, and Hampton. There are at least six other volcanoes on offshore islands.

The tallest mountain in Antarctica is Mount Vinson, which reaches 16,050 feet above sea level. It's found in the Sentinel Range of the Ellsworth Mountains. Most of the mountains in Antarctica form part of the Transantarctic Mountains.

The Ellsworth Mountains
The Ellsworth Mountains

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