Antarctic Weather and Environment
Some people might say that a trip to the coldest place on earth is just plain crazy. Instead, why not go to a tropical island and bask in the sun while sipping fruity umbrella drinks?
Before you consider a trip to Antarctica, get your facts straight. Depending on where you go, it’s not as scary as you might think.
A Frozen Desert
(Not to be confused with a frozen dessert, like ice cream.)
The Antarctic interior is a cold, windy and dry desert whose snowfall is equivalent to less than 2 inches (50 millimeters) of rain per year. Antarctica is the driest desert on earth – drier than the Sahara, and just as big.
Antarctica is also the windiest place on earth. Intense katabatic winds peel off the polar plateau to gather speeds of up to 185 mph (300 kilometers per hour) on the coast. It’s a land of blizzards and snowdrifts.
Did we say cold? Winter temperatures on the plateau can range from -40 degrees F (-40 degress C) to -94 degrees F (-70 degrees C), while summer achieves a balmy -31 degrees F (-35 degrees C).
The coasts and the Peninsula are much warmer. Mid-summer temperatures on the peninsula can reach 60 degrees F (nearly 15 degrees C), and the East Antarctic coast gets up to a whopping 32 degrees F (0 degrees C).
Here’s the good news: Most Antarctic expeditions travel to the coastal regions and the Peninsula.
[TRIP TRIVIA: Some tourists have been seen in their shirtsleeves, sipping those fruity drinks (sans umbrellas) while riding the bows of ice-ready ships. They’ve even been caught swimming in the warm volcanic waters near Deception Island in Whaler’s Bay.]
Weather fronts don’t usually reach the Antarctic interior, where the air is too cold to hold much moisture anyway. The little snow that does fall tends to stay for a very, very long time because it’s never warm enough to melt it! The coasts, on the other hand, can get heavy snowfalls of up to 1.22 meters (4 feet).
What’s Antarctica Look Like?
This is a big place – over 14 million square miles – that encompasses different ecosystems and terrain. In a nutshell, you have some volcanic mountains, sand-dune like snow drifts, oases in the form of dry valleys, crevasses (big cracks in the ice), glaciers and more glaciers, and ice shelves near the coasts.
The Peninsula itself is a major mountain system with rock and glaciers and many islands. Lucky tourists can watch glaciers calve, though they usually hear them before they see them. Don’t forget the surrounding seas and straits, which are littered with blue icebergs and bobbing bergy bits.
In the winter, it’s constantly dark at certain latitudes. In the summer, it’s constantly light. The twilight skies can be colorful, as can the southern lights glowing near the South Pole. Other visual treats include diamond dust – tiny ice crystals that form ground-level clouds – and sundogs, which are atmospheric phenomenons that display a bright spot next the sun.
Who Dwells There?
Antarctica’s harsh conditions and geographic location translate to “desolate” in all languages except penguin-speak. That’s what makes it so attractive to adventurers. Not many people go there. No indigenous populations inhabit the continent or the peninsula, and the penguins far outnumber the human residents. This immense continent boasts a peak population of around 35,000, comprised mostly of tourists and approximately 5,000 scientists.
What’s The Coolest Thing Of All?
These incredible environmental forces combine to shape an amazing nature-scape of snow and ice and rock that only a few bold adventurers will appreciate first-hand.
So try to keep quiet about the summer temps, tropical drinks, and the great scenery. For some of us, it’d be a shame if Antarctica became too crowded.