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6 Things That Will Surprise You About Antarctica

Unexpected lessons from a journey to the Frozen Continent

6 Things That Will Surprise You About Antarctica

Photo by Trent Branson

Earlier this year, Christina Beckmann of the Adventure Travel Trade Association traveled to Antarctica as part of a journey in partnership with The Explorer’s Passage and ClimateForce 2041. Here are some of the surprising facts that she learned along the way, summarized with the help of climate scientist Jessica Reilly.


Iceberg falling apart. Photo by Wendy Gediman

Antarctica is both the driest and wettest place on earth. Ninety percent of the earth’s freshwater is stored in its ice, but rain, snow, and ice haven’t touched the McMurdo dry valleys in 14 million years.


Krill, mouth to mouth. Photo by Wendy Gediman

How did the blue whale evolve to be the largest creature ever on earth? By feasting on the same tiny organisms that the penguins here are eating: krill. When added up, krill collectively form the largest biomass on earth. Though individually each is tiny, between one to six centimeters long, the concentration of krill is so dense in Antarctic waters that ten whale species migrate to feast on these explosions of life every summer, and scientists believe this biomass is responsible for the massive size of the world’s great whales.


Photo by Fraser Morton

You might not know it, but as a human on Earth, you have a claim to Antarctica. No country owns or rules Antarctica, instead a collection of 53 countries coordinate its management under the Antarctic Treaty, which protects the continent for science and peace. Many people worry that when the treaty expires in 2041, industrial exploration of Antarctica will overwhelm its delicate ecology. Learn more about efforts to turn much of the seas around the continent into a nature sanctuary here; you can sign a petition in support of this effort here.


Lichen on ice. Photo by Trent Branson

Some organisms survive Antarctica’s brutal conditions by growing at a glacial pace (irresistible pun intended). Brightly colored green, red, orange, and yellow lichens found in Antarctica’s maritime regions grow only one centimeter every 100 years. But in Antarctica’s dry valleys, it can take 1,000 years for lichen to grow that same centimeter.


Fur seal roaring. By Trent Branson

Antarctic fur seals are surprisingly agile on land because they are able to bear their weight on their fore-flippers. These playful animals were once hunted almost to extinction, but are now protected by the Antarctic Treaty, (which will be up for renegotiation in 2041) bringing their conservation status to “least concern.” However, the impact of climate change on their prey and their physical environment makes their future increasingly uncertain.


Paddleboarders in Antarctica. Photo by Fraser Morton

Antarctica is hard to reach, icy cold, windy, and usually inhospitable--but this didn’t stop over 45,000 people from visiting last year! Prior to the mid-20th century, very few people experienced Antarctica’s rare grace and beauty. That all changed when in 1966, Lars Lindblad led the first traveler’s expedition, guided by the belief that “you can’t protect what you don’t know.” Today, approximately 40 ships operate in Antarctica, carrying between 6 and 500 passengers from South America to the Antarctic Peninsula at a time.


Photo by Fraser Morton

Want To Help Antarctica? Three things you can do today:

● Bring your own water bottle and skip the single-use plastic ones. Learn how the Adventure Travel Trade Association and Grayl are tackling the problem of single-use bottle pollution.
● Support Ocean Clean Up. Learn more at oceancleanup.com.
● Reduce Your Carbon Footprint. Start by figuring out how large your footprint is with a carbon calculator.