News and Polar Info

Differences between Antarctica and the Arctic Regions

Antarctica is the southern polar region, and the Arctic is the northern polar region. Polar regions have extremely cold, harsh climates that require plants and animals to adapt in interesting ways.

What’s the key difference between the regions? Antarctica is a continent surrounded by ocean, while the Arctic is an ocean almost completely surrounded by land. 

Arctic ice is typically thicker than Antarctica ice (6 - 10 ft and in some places 12-15 ft). However, with water under it, some of the water’s heat escapes through the ice. Even in winter, some of the ice breaks up and releases ocean heat to warm the air. The Arctic receives relatively warm water from the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. 

Most of Antarctica is covered by a few thousand feet of ice – though there is some geothermal heat beneath the ice, that heat can’t escape. The Southern Ocean surrounds Antarctica, and winds from its strong storms help create an ocean current that circles the continent. This reduces the amount of warm water that reaches the land. The result? The Antarctic region is colder than the Arctic.

Antarctica Arctic
Continent surrounded by water Ocean surrounded by continents & Greenland
2% ice free Limited land ice
Sea ice mainly annual, salty, and less than 2 meters thick (6 ½ ft.) Sea ice mainly multi-year, low in salinity and more than 2 meters thick (6 ½ ft.)
Marine mammals (whale and seal); no terrestrial mammals Terrestrial mammals (reindeer, wolf, musk ox, hare, lemming, fox); marine mammals (whale, seal, polar bear, walrus)
Penguins & less than 20 bird species More than 100 bird species
Lichens About 90 flowering plant species