Antarctic environment

Iceberg at sunset
Iceberg at sunset (Photo: Warwick Barnes)
Comparison map of Antarctica, Australia and New ZealandMap of Antarctica and surrounding countriesMap of distances between Australia, Antarctic stations and subantarctic locations

The landscape

The Antarctic continent is a land mass covered with ice up to 4 km thick. The highest point is approximately 4 km above sea level. There is little exposed rock and, although millions of years ago there was heavy vegetation, today the only plants that grow are very small mosses and lichens. Antarctica is the highest, driest, windiest and coldest continent in the world.

Height of Antarctica

Antarctica has an average elevation of 2500 metres, the highest of all the continents. Australia's average elevation is only 330 metres. The height of the South Pole is 2830 metres and the highest point on the icecap is in Australian Antarctic Territory, at 4093 metres, at 80°22' S, 77°21' E. The highest mountain in the eastern sector of the Australian Antarctic Territory is Mt McClintock (3492 metres) and highest mountain in the western sector of the Australian Antarctic Territory is Mt Menzies (3228 metres). Vinson Massif is the highest mountain in Antarctica, at 4897 metres. For more information, see Areas, lengths, heights and distances.

Snow (precipitation) in Antarctica

Antarctica is the driest continent on earth. The amount of moisture received by the polar plateau is comparable to that falling on the world’s hot deserts.

Wind in Antarctica

Antarctica is the windiest continent on earth. Winds flow down the coastal slopes under the influence of gravity. These katabatic wind speeds have been recorded at up to 327 km per hour. For more information, see Antarctic weather – meteorology.

Temperature in Antarctica

Antarctica is the also coldest continent on earth. The lowest temperature ever recorded on earth was minus 89.2°C at Vostok, in the Australian Antarctic Territory, in 1983. For more information see Dome Argus (the coldest place in the Antarctic Territory) and wind chill.

Size of Antarctica

Including all the islands and ice shelves, Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia, covering 13,661,000 km². The Australian Antarctic Territory is 5,896,500 km² (42% of Antarctica).

The closest country to Antarctica

South America, the point of which is shared by Argentina and Chile, is the closest continent to Antarctica. At the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, 1238 km south of Ushuaia (the southern-most city of Argentina) is the Argentinian station Vice Comodoro Marambio.

In contrast, the distance between Hobart, Tasmania (where the Australian Antarctic Division is situated) and Australia’s closest station, Casey, is 3443 km.

Claims for Antarctic Territory

The Antarctic Treaty was designed to provide an agreement for the future care and use of Antarctica, and avoid territorial and other disputes. The Treaty encourages international co-operation in scientific research – an extraordinary agreement given that it was signed during the Cold War!

For more information see Antarctic Treaty.