What Is Antarctica?

Aerial view of the continent of Antarctica surrounded by dark blue oceans.

Antarctica is Earth's fifth largest continent. Image credit: NASA

What is Antarctica like?

Pack your snowshoes, hat, gloves, and the puffiest jacket you have – because Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth! The average temperature in Antarctica in the winter is minus 34.4 Celsius (minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit). The temperature in the center of Antarctica is much lower than the temperature on the coasts. The lowest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was minus 89.4 C (minus 129 F). The highest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was 15 C (59 F).

Antarctica has just two seasons: summer and winter. Antarctica has six months of daylight in its summer and six months of darkness in its winter.

The seasons are caused by the tilt of Earth's axis in relation to the sun. The direction of the tilt never changes. But as the Earth orbits the sun, different parts of the planet are exposed to direct sunlight. During summer, Antarctica is on the side of Earth tilted toward the sun and is in constant sunlight. In the winter, Antarctica is on the side of Earth tilted away from the sun, causing the continent to be dark.

Earth’s 23 degree tilt is the reason for Earth’s seasons and Antarctica’s lack of spring and fall. The Sun is in the middle of the image and two versions of Earth are on each side. The December Solstice, or winter in the northern hemisphere, makes Antarctica point toward the Sun. The June Solstice, or summer in the northern hemisphere, makes Antarctica point in the opposite direction of the Sun. These two extremes explain why Antarctica has only two seasons: summer and winter.

Antarctica has only two seasons because of Earth’s 23 degree axial tilt. If you love long summers and winters, Antarctica is the place for you! Image credit: NASA-JPL/Caltech

Though Antarctica is really, really chilly, it is considered a desert because it receives very little rain or snowfall. The small amount of snow that does fall does not melt but builds up over hundreds and thousands of years to form large, thick ice sheets. Antarctica's terrain is made up of glaciers, ice shelves and icebergs.

Antarctica’s terrain on a partly cloudy day. Icy, snow-covered mountains rise above the sea, while a huge snowy ice shelf appears closer.

Antarctica’s terrain is made up of glaciers, ice shelves and icebergs – that’s a lot of ice! Credit: Kimberley R. Miner/NASA/JPL-Caltech

Signs in Antarctica point to different locations on Earth and show how many miles away that location is. For example, the South Pole points to the left of the image and is 1744 miles away. The ground is covered in snow, and icy terrain rises from the sea in the background.

Though Antarctica is way too cold for people to live there for a long time, scientists take turns going to the icy continent to study the chilly place. NASA scientist Kimberley Miner snapped this photograph when she went to Antarctica! Credit: Kimberley R. Miner/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A photograph taken off the back of a boat looking at the sea. The water’s surface is filled with fragments of broken ice pieces. The icy water looks “crunchy” and fades into the horizon. The sky is one tone of gray and nearly blends in with the icy water.

Would you take a swim in this ice water off the coast of Antarctica? Credit: Kimberley R. Miner/NASA/JPL-Caltech

A bright white glacier in the dark blue choppy waters of Antarctica against a cloudy sky.

Glaciers galore in Antarctica. Credit: Kimberley R. Miner/NASA/JPL-Caltech

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Antarctica has no trees or bushes. The only plants that can survive the extreme cold are lichens, mosses and algae.

Beardmore Glacier in central Antarctica. The mountainous terrain forms a valley of snow and ice. Most of the mountaintops are covered in snow, but some are exposed and rocky terrain can be seen.

Imagine sledding here, on Beardmore Glacier in central Antarctica! Image credit: Commander Jim Waldron USNR—Antarctic Photo Library/National Science Foundation

Who lives in Antarctica?

Antarctica is too cold for people to live there for a long time. Scientists take turns going there to study the ice. Tourists visit Antarctica in the summers. The oceans surrounding Antarctica are home to many types of whales. Antarctica is also home to seals and penguins.

Four seals lay on an ice raft on a desolate icy landscape. A big iceberg is visible in the background. Clouds cover the sky, making the white snow and ice appear dark and gray.

Come for the sledding, stay to chill out with the seals! Image credit: Kimberley R. Miner/NASA/JPL-Caltech

What can NASA learn about Earth from studying Antarctica?

NASA uses satellites to study the ice on Antarctica and how the continent is changing. Scientists want to know how changes in Earth's climate are affecting Antarctica's ice sheets. They also want to know how changes in Antarctic ice might affect Earth's climate.

One tool that NASA uses is the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite, or ICESat. Using ICESat, NASA can measure changes in size of Antarctica's ice sheets. ICESat also helps NASA understand how changes in Earth's atmosphere and climate affect polar ice and global sea levels. Melting ice sheets may impact sea levels all over the world.

NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 flying above an ice shelf and overlooking the ice and ocean surface below. Green lines illustrate the satellite observing Earth’s ice.

Illustration of NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), a mission to measure the changing height of Earth's ice. Image credit: NASA

NASA instruments have also helped scientists create detailed maps of the surface of Antarctica. The maps help researchers when planning trips to Antarctica. They also give the public a clearer view of the continent.

What can NASA learn about space from studying Antarctica?

Antarctica is also a good place to find meteorites, or rocks that fall from space to Earth. The number of meteorites found in Antarctica is equal to the number of meteorites found in the rest of the world combined. Meteorites are easier to see on the white ice. Also, meteorites that fall to Antarctica are preserved in ice for a long time.

Members of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program collect a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite from a glacial moraine at the base of Mt. Ward, Antarctica. The two members are wearing red coats, as well as hats, mittens, and goggles. The member on the right is on their hands and knees, using a tool to investigate a meteorite rock. The member on the left is holding aluminum foil and another tool and observes the other team member.

Members of the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program collect a carbonaceous chondrite meteorite from the base of Mt. Ward, Antarctica. Image credit: Christine Floss

NASA scientists have used the Antarctic environment to study Mars. The desert conditions in Antarctica are like the conditions on Mars. NASA tested robots in Antarctica that later landed on Mars.

NASA scientists went to Antarctica to study astronaut nutrition. Like people in Antarctica in the winter, astronauts in space are not in the sunlight. The sun helps the human body make vitamins. Scientists study people that visit Antarctica to learn how to help astronauts in space get enough vitamins.

Antarctica is also an important region to study the effects of climate change. NASA’s NISAR (NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar) will measure changes in sea ice, snow extent, permafrost, and surface melting in higher resolution than ever before. Rising sea level from melting ice sheets can create dangerous conditions for people living close to the ocean. Measurements taken now will be used to predict future changes and help scientists better understand our planet's changing climate.

Antarctica’s bright white landscape. An orange snowmobile vehicle sits atop an icy white surface in the foreground. Wispy clouds line the sky above the mountainous and icy landscape.

Scientists like Dr. Kimberley Miner visit Antarctica to conduct research and learn more about our Earth. Image credit: Kimberley R. Miner/NASA-JPL/Caltech.

article last updated October 4, 2023
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