Frequently Asked Questions about Antarctica


1/ Why doesn't it rain in Antarctica ?

The simple answer is that it's too cold. What would be rain falls as snow instead, but not very much of that falls either, Antarctica is classed as a desert as so little snow falls, it's just that being so cold, it doesn't go anywhere and so builds up until it's kilometers thick. Actually, even much of that "snow" isn't really snow but ice crystals that form in the air, fall out and accumulate very slowly over time.

The snow/ice fall can be measured by melting it and measuring the water produced, it is called "precipitation equivalent", the amount that would have fallen if it had been rain.

Antarctic mountains 2/ Where is the South Pole ?

Unlike the North Pole the South Pole is inland. It is near the middle of the Great Antarctic ice sheet at an altitude of 2,800m (9,186 ft). It is 1,230 km (764 miles) from the nearest coast. The ice at the Pole is moving at about 10 m per year. Each year staff at the Amundsen-Scott (USA) station at the South Pole move the marker flag to compensate for the movement of the ice.

The Magnetic South Pole (opposite to the Magnetic North Pole we all point our compasses at) on the other hand doesn't have a fixed position, it drifts about all the time travelling 10 to 15 km each year. It was first reached during Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition (1907-1909) by Professor Edgeworth David and Sir Douglas Mawson (Australian geologists) and Alistair Mackay.

At that time the magnetic pole lay within the Antarctic continent at latitude 71.6°S and longitude 152°E. Today the Magnetic South Pole lies far out to sea at latitude 64°S and longitude 137°E, around 1,057km (660 miles) away from where it was. The pole wanders daily in a roughly elliptical path around this average position, and may be as far as 80 km (50 miles) away from this position when the Earth's magnetic field is disturbed.

Antarctic mountains 3/ What do you pack in your survival kits?

Scientists in Antarctica generally live on a base or station where everything is provided for them. Like living in a hostel - except there aren't any staff to do things for you! On most bases apart from the specialist jobs, everyone takes it in turns to do the mundane unskilled work. Near to many bases is a hut that contains enough tents, clothing and food for a full base compliment for about 18 months, just in case the base burns down and they are left with nothing. Pretty bad news in the middle of a Antarctic winter with no chance of rescue for some months.

When going off base to stay in tents or huts, there are sufficient rations for much longer than the intended stay. The saying is "pitch your tent as though you're there for a month, even though it may only be a night" If the wind gets up, then a storm could (and has in the past) kept the people in their tent for a month, unable to leave because of the terrible weather.

In huts and tents away from the station, there is everything needed to stay alive in really low temperatures. Paraffin stove and lamp, loads of high energy food, synthetic camping mat, air mattress and thick sheepskin on top of this, then two huge great down-filled sleeping bags with a big hood, and of course lots of layers of very warm clothing. Fuel is very important too, there's plenty of frozen water about but it needs melting for drinks and cooking, when travelling most food is dehydrated to save weight and space.

Antarctic mountains 4/ How do people survive the cold in Antarctica ?

You wrap up warm in layers and several of them. It's very important to properly cover the extremities and places where heat might escape easily too, feet, ankles, hands, wrists and your head. Mainly synthetic fibers these days, not forgetting insulated footwear too. Clothes need to be kept dry and clean to maintain their best insulating qualities.

UV (ultra-violet) radiation is fierce in the summer so wearing wrap-round goggles and sun screen on any exposed skin is just as important as keeping warm in the winter. It can be quite a surprise to get sun burnt under your nose from the light reflected from snow and ice.

Survival is largely about not being caught out in the worst weather, not getting lost in whiteout conditions and not taking unnecessary risks. This means you must be well-trained to carry out your activities, careful about how you dress and work in a team where each member watches the others for signs of "frost-nip" and hypothermia.

Food is very important. Clothing keeps the body heat from escaping, plenty of nutritious food feeds the furnace from the inside and helps generate warmth.

Despite what people often assume, the Antarctic is not a place to take risks, but a place where weather extremes are planned for in advance and survival actions are a well rehearsed drill.

More on Antarctic clothing | More on Antarctic food

Antarctic mountains 5/ Have you ever seen an ice berg fall into the water?

Yes, and I was only about 250m away from it in a small boat at the time! It started with a bit of rumbling and a few snowballs fell from the top, then a huge great column of ice like a couple of office blocks slid into the water. This caused an enormous wave and we thought for a while that we'd be overwhelmed, but were ok after much rocking about. It's one of those things that it's good to be able to say happened to you, but you wouldn't choose to do it!

The largest icebergs don't actually "fall" off at all. Those huge flat (tabular) ones you may have heard of, slide down to the sea as part of a glacier and then start to float while still attached. Eventually after many years of being pushed out into the sea a crack forms and they float free, a much less exciting way of being formed than smaller ones that can and do fall a long way with much drama.

6/ Is there a rubbish (garbage) truck in Antarctica?

Antarctic bases are much more environmentally friendly these days than they used to be. Most are small with around 15 people in winter and 50 in summer, so there's no truck. Most waste is crushed and segregated into different types before being taken out by the ships that bring in the new supplies and dealt with in the home country or a port where the ship calls.

Some countries still incinerate waster that can be dealt with in this way, though even with filters and efficient burn systems, it is a less than ideal way to deal with waste.

7/ How many species of animals live in Antarctica?

It is impossible to give a precise answer for a number of reasons, though generally as you move away from the tropics towards colder climates, there is a general reduction in the number of species, but increase of numbers of individuals of a species. So Antarctica has not so many different types of animals - but loads of each, the tropics have loads of types, but not so many of each. The second most numerous mammal in the world after man is the crabeater seal - a typical Antarctic animal.

Crabeater seals and krill, what the seals really eat - not crabs.

There is a much greater variety of species in the sea than on the land. In recent years, the life in the seas has been studied more closely and there have been found to be many more species living there than previously thought. Also, as the seas warm up, even slightly, more northerly marine species are able to move further south into waters that previously were too cold for them. The Census of Marine Life in 2010 found that there were between 230,000 and 250,000 marine species in the world's oceans of which about 7,500 or 3% are found in the Antarctic.

8/ What sort of clothes do you wear in Antarctica?

Thin layers and several of them. It's very important to cover ankles, wrists and your head. Mainly synthetic fibers these days. More on Antarctic clothing

cold weather clothing

South Pole 9/ What happens if you run out of food?

Unlikely (see above), in the extreme case we had rifles and skinning knives in order to capture and eat penguins and seals. At my base I was a marine biologist, so we had boats and nets and could have caught fish to eat (in fact we did eat some of the extra ones we caught).

Does anyone live (permanently) in Antarctica? Are there towns there?

No one lives in Antarctica permanently, there are bases and settlements that look like towns, but they are places where people arrive and stay for anywhere between about 3 and 18 months, there are always people there at many of them, but the people quickly move on. The purpose of the bases is to do science stuff, if you aren't part of the scientific or support teams you can' really visit or stay there. more on living in Antarctica

New Zealand dog team at Scott base Antarctica 1978, picture courtesy NOAA 11/ Do they sometimes use huskies in expeditions?

In the past but not any more. As a part of the environmental protection, non-native species are no longer allowed to be taken to Antarctica, the last huskies were taken out in 1994. While they were really useful in the early days up to about the 1960's, they were superseded for transport many years before they were removed by motor powered vehicles.

The Antarctic ozone hole on September 24, 2006 - a new record size 12/ How do you know the ozone layer is there when you can't see it?

You can detect it with special instruments. Like you can detect oxygen, carbon dioxide, radio waves and electricity even though you can't see them either.

The ozone "hole" is actually an area of ozone thinning in the stratosphere which extends from about 15-50 km (10-30 miles) above the earths surface in the atmosphere, it appears annually over Antarctica with the greatest extent in September. Ozone blocks dangerous ultra violet light from the sun reaching the planets surface, the hole also effects climate change.

13/ Are children allowed to go to Antarctica?

Allowed to - yes, but don't often go. Everyone who goes with a country's Antarctic programme has a job to do, children don't have jobs and so don't go. Children can go as tourists although the cruises are very much aimed at adults and I imagine most children would find them fairly boring for much of the time - like a load of other things adults seem to enjoy.

There are two very small schools at the Argentinian Esperanza Base and the Chilean Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva Base, both on the Antarctic Peninsula. The parents of these children work at these bases.

Up to 2009, there were eleven children born in Antarctica at either an Argentine or Chilean base. They were part of a deliberate attempt to strengthen national territorial claims.

Work in Antarctica 14/ What kind of jobs are there in Antarctica and what is the lifestyle like?

Antarctic bases exist for scientific research, so the jobs are scientific or support for the scientists, including but not limited to:

Scientific: marine biologist, bird biologist, lake biologist, microbiologist, atmospheric scientist, geologist, climatologist and lots of other sorts of 'ologists!

Support: radio operator, boatman, mechanic, electrician, doctor, cook, diver, carpenter.

More on jobs in Antarctica

Work in Antarctica 15/ Does Antarctica have electricity?

Yes it does. Usually provided by diesel powered generators at each base, but increasingly stations are installing wind turbines to generate supplementary electricity.

This makes sense as Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, but poses a problem in case the strong winds damage the wind turbines. Every station has to have its own electricity generating capability as they are all self contained.

Adelie penguin 16/ What Sound do Penguins Make?

Penguins have harsh raucous voices. They are somewhat variable in the adults but tend to be a sort of loud "Awk", Jackass penguins are named after the braying sound of their namesake and the other species are not dissimilar. When courting, they make gentler sounds of an elongated awwww.... ending in the inevitable shouted "awk, awk, awk" with an associated display as the penguin in the picture to the right is performing.

Penguin chicks on the other hand make the same sort of cute cheeping sounds that many other birds make.

The Antarctic centered on the South Pole
Land surrounded by sea 17/ What is the Antarctic Circle?

The Antarctic Circle is an imaginary line that runs around the earth at 66°33' 44'' (66.5622°) South.

It encompasses the great majority of the Antarctic continent and large areas of the Southern Ocean. It is the line that marks where for at least one day of the year, the sun is continually above or below the horizon so giving 24 hours of daylight or night-time. On the circle itself, there will just be one day a year of each (full daylight at midsummer and then full night at midwinter), the further you go south, the longer the period of constant day or night until you get to the pole itself. At the pole there is 6 months of daylight followed by 6 months of night.

This situation is mirrored in the north by the Arctic Circle.

Antarctica and its islands are generally considered to be contained within the 60° line of latitude.

Picture credit: : Group of 3 crabeater seals - Liam Quinn, used under Creative Commons 2.0 Share and Share Alike generic license.