Physical Geography of Antarctica

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov
This lesson explores the fascinating physical geography of Antarctica. You'll learn about all its ice, mountains, seas, and lakes. Yes, lakes in Antarctica!


If you don't like the cold then you should definitely avoid a few places on Earth. Santa's location, the North Pole, would definitely be one of them. The not-so-green Greenland is a safe bet to avoid. And the more aptly named Iceland is for sure a place to forgo as well. But if you want to avoid the coldest place in the world, then you should skip Antarctica, a continent located at the Earth's South Pole.

This is a continent we're still only beginning to understand, but you will learn quite a bit about its physical geography in this lesson nonetheless.

Use this map to locate many of the physical features of Antarctica this lesson covers.

Ice & Land

Whereas Iceland has plenty of non-icy land despite its name; especially during the summer, Antarctica is a bit of a different story. This continent is almost completely covered by a thick sheet of ice, over 4 km (over 13,000 feet) deep in some places! It is the largest single piece of ice in the entire world. In fact, about 98% of Antarctica's surface is covered by ice. Sounds like a great place to play hockey, no?

Anyway, if you were to get rid of all of that ice, then Antarctica would be comprised of a landmass the size of Australia with a very large peninsula stuck onto it and a lot of mountainous islands to boot. The larger, Australia-like landmass is known as Greater Antarctica, or East Antarctica. It is made up of igneous and metamorphic rocks. On the other hand, the peninsula and mountainous islands are made up of volcanic and sedimentary rocks. This peninsula and its islands are known as Lesser Antarctica, or West Antarctica.

Greater Antarctica and Lesser Antarctica are divided by the Transantarctic Mountains. However, the highest point in Antarctica is located in the Ellsworth Mountains, part of West Antarctica. It is called Vinson Massif and it stands at almost 4,900 meters (about 16,000 feet).

Ice, Sea, & Lakes

You better believe Vinson Massif has plenty of ice. This is no different from much of the sea that surrounds the continent. The ice sheet grows in size throughout the year. It varies from about 3 million square kilometers in the summer to about 19 million square kilometers in the winter. A large amount of this growth actually occurs thanks to ice shelves. An ice shelf is a sheet of ice that sits on top of water (not land) but is connected to land. Tough to imagine? Well, have you ever been to a calm lake at winter time? Near the lake, but on land, there may have been snow and ice. But surely you would've seen how near the shore the water would've turned to ice and extended out onto the lake for a bit. That extension of the ice from the land and onto the water is like an ice shelf. Of course, this is a simplification, but you get the idea. Some ice shelves of Antarctica include the:

  • Ross Ice Shelf
  • Ronne Ice Shelf
  • Amery Ice Shelf
  • Larsen Ice Shelf

The continent is also surrounded by various seas that are part of the Antarctic Ocean. They include the:

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