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Introduction to the Antarctic

Leopard seal on the ice
Photographer: Peter Rejcek
National Science Foundation
Date Taken: January 8, 2010

Antarctica is the ice-covered continent south of 60 degrees south latitude. In addition to vast oceans, this region contains 14 million km2 of land, making it the fifth largest continent, nearly 1.5 times the size of Canada. The majority of the continent is covered with ice, and glaciers line its coasts. The Antarctic is one of the harshest environments on the planet, some of the strongest winds and lowest temperatures on earth have been recorded in the Antarctic and snow and ice coverage can be up to four kilometres thick.

The Antarctic is an environmentally significant region. It contains relatively untouched ecosystems that are scientifically valuable. The polar ice cap holds within it a record of past atmospheres that go back tens or even hundreds of thousands of years. This allows a detailed study of the earth's natural climate cycles against which the significance of recent changes can be judged. The Antarctic is home to hundreds of unique and vulnerable wildlife species. Its marine environment sustains a wide range of marine mammals, such as seals and whales, at far greater levels than are found in the Arctic region. Short food chains make the Antarctic marine ecosystem very fragile and susceptible to disruption.

While contributing to global biodiversity, the Antarctic also plays a central role in the world's ocean and climate systems. Approximately 80% of the world's freshwater is frozen in Antarctic ice. The land mass and surrounding waters of the Antarctic provide essential nutrients to the rest of the world's oceans and support life systems thousands of kilometres away.