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Around the Continent—Cold Hard Facts

There's more to know about Antarctica than it being the coldest, windiest, highest and harshest continent on Earth.

The Facts

Spending the Long Night at South Pole

Few people have traveled to the South Pole since Roald Amundsen and Robert Falcon Scott reached the bottom of the world in the austral summer of 1911-12. Fewer still stay for the six months of darkness in the winter. The first crew to winter at South Pole was in 1957, but only 1,267 people have spent the winter (in the parlance of the U.S. Antarctic Program, "wintered over") through 2009.

Other Antarctic winter-over milestones include:

  • Number of people with six winters: 4 (Robert Schwarz, Johan Booth, Barry Horbal and Steffen Richter)
  • Most consecutive winters: 5 (Joseph Gibbons, a.k.a., Jake Speed)
  • Most winters by a woman: 5 (Heidi Lim)
  • Number of women who have wintered at South Pole: 162
  • Oldest person to winter: 65, as of September 2008 (Dr. Malcolm Arnold)
  • Youngest person to winter: 19, as of Jan. 19, 2008 (Andy Titterington)

Source: www.southpolestation.com

Sea Ice Keeps It Cool

Sea ice is formed from ocean water that freezes. Because the oceans consist of saltwater, this occurs at about minus 1.8 degrees Celsius (28.8 degrees Fahrenheit). Most Antarctic sea ice occurs annually, meaning it forms in the winter and melts during the summer. Sea ice regulates exchanges of heat, moisture and salinity in the polar oceans. It insulates the relatively warm ocean water from the cold polar atmosphere except where cracks, or leads, in the ice allow exchange of heat and water vapor from ocean to atmosphere in winter. The number of leads determines where and how much heat and water are lost to the atmosphere, which may affect local cloud cover and precipitation.

  • Antarctic sea ice extent in the winter: 18 million square kilometers 
  • Antarctic sea ice extent in the summer: 3 million square kilometers 
  • Some types of sea ice: fast, pack, drift 
  • Multi-year ice: ice that has survived at least one melt season; it is typically 2 to 4 meters thick

McMurdo Largest U.S. Research Station

The U.S. Antarctic Program operates three permanent research stations, the largest of which is McMurdo Station, located on Ross Island. Its name is taken from Lt. Archibald McMurdo who was on board Capt. James Clark Ross’ ship the Terror (1841). McMurdo Station is the port of entry for most USAP cargo and personnel on the continent, and serves as a logistics facility for airborne re-supply of inland stations and for field science projects. It is also the waste management center for much of the USAP. It was originally built by the U.S. Navy in 1955-56 in support of the International Geophysical Year. It is located at sea level, and is the point farthest south a ship can sail (77°51’S, 166°40’E).

  • Distance from Christchurch, New Zealand: 3,864 km (2,415 miles)
  • Distance from South Pole: 1,360 km (850 miles)
  • Mean annual temperature: -18 degrees C (0 degrees F) 
  • Average wind speed: 12 knots
  • Average summer population: 1,100 
  • Average winter population: 125

International Polar Year Kicks Off

The official international opening ceremony was held on March 1, 2007, in Paris, France. Fifteen countries held their own launch events for IPY. The United States’ launch was at the National Academy of Science. The IPY runs from March 1, 2007 to March 1, 2009, to allow for two summer seasons of science in each polar region.

  • Number of countries committed to IPY activities: more than 60
  • Years of previous periods dedicated to polar-intensive research: 1882, 1932  and 1957
  • Number of IPY projects as of February 2007: 228 projects planned
  • Number of science projects: 166
  • Number of education and outreach projects: 52
  • Number of hits on Google™ for “International Polar Year”: 1.8 million

Mount Vinson the Tops

Mount Vinson is Antarctica’s tallest mountain. The mountain was named after Carl Vinson, a U.S. Congressman from Georgia who was a key supporter of funding for Antarctic research.

Mount Vinson is also called Vinson Massif. The word massif is French and refers to a large mountain or compact group of connected mountains that form an independent portion of a range. Mount Vinson is part of the Sentinel Range, a large Antarctic mountain range that stretches out 115 miles long by 15 to 30 miles wide. 

  • Height: 16,066 feet above sea level
  • Other physical properties: 13 miles long and 8 miles wide
  • Miles from South Pole: 750