Why the Antarctic is so important
The huge frozen landmass at the bottom of our planet is more than just spectacular icing on the globe. It could be vital for our survival too.
The Antarctic ice deflects some of the sun’s rays away from the Earth, keeping temperatures liveable.
Although it’s not predicted that the massive Antarctic ice sheets are likely to melt completely, even small-scale melting would raise global sea levels, and cause flooding around the world.
The ocean surrounding the continent also support masses of the world’s sealife – including 15 species of whale and dolphin, and five species of penguin. The nutrient-rich waters encourage blooms of tiny plankton, the basis of the ocean food chain.
Antarctica is one of the world's most important ‘natural laboratories’ – which is why so many scientists brave the cold to work there. As well as helping us understand global climate change now, the unique archive locked in Antarctica’s thick ice sheet tells us what our planet's climate has been like over almost a million years.
About the Antarctic
Antarctica is a vast ice-covered landmass surrounded by sea (unlike the Arctic, which is an ice-covered ocean surrounded by land). It’s bigger than Europe, and in summer, it's still 62 times the size of the UK!
Antarctica is the world’s highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent. Its record low temperature is -94°C. But it doesn’t actually snow much – the Antarctic is so dry it’s classed as a polar desert.
And it’s in darkness part of the year. There are no trees, or shrubs, and only two kinds of native flowering plant.
Not surprisingly there are no people permanently living or native to Antarctica – although there can be up to 5,000 scientists and researchers based there (including teams supported by WWF studying Emperor and Adélie penguins). And about 30,000 tourists visit per year – who need to be well-managed so they don’t damage this pristine environment.
The Antarctic is one of the world’s least disturbed places, but it’s increasingly vulnerable, especially to global warming and climate change.