Photo Courtesy of NASA
Antarctica (from Greek, "opposite the Arctic") is a continent surrounding the Earth's South Pole. It is the coldest place on Earth and is almost entirely covered by ice; however, it is also the world's largest desert.
Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis ("Southern Land") go back to antiquity, the first commonly accepted sighting of the continent occurred in 1820 and the first verified landing in 1821 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. (See also History of Antarctica.)
With an area of 13,200,000 km², Antarctica is the fifth largest continent, after Asia, Africa, North America, and South America. However, it is by far the smallest in population: indeed, it has no permanent population at all. It is also the continent with the highest average altitude, and the lowest average humidity of any continent on Earth, as well as the lowest average temperature.
Antarctica is the coldest place on earth. Temperatures reach a minimum of between -85 and -90 degrees Celsius in the winter and about 30 degrees higher in the summer months. Weather fronts rarely penetrate far into the continent, leaving the center cold and dry. There is little precipitation over the central portion of the continent, but ice there can last for extended time periods. However, heavy snowfalls are not uncommon on the coastal portion of the continent, where snowfalls of up to 48 inches in 48 hours have been recorded. Nearly all of Antarctica is covered by an ice sheet that is, on average, 2.5 kilometers thick.
At the edge of the continent, strong katabatic winds off the polar plateau often blow at storm force. In the interior, however, windspeeds are often moderate.
Depending on the latitude, long periods of constant darkness, or constant sunlight, mean that climates familiar to humans are not generally available on the continent.
The continent of Antarctica is located mostly south of the Antarctic Circle, surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Physically Antarctica is divided in two by mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The portion of the continent west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is called Western Antarctica and the remainder Eastern Antarctica, since they correspond roughly to the eastern and western hemispheres relative to the Greenwich meridian. Western Antarctica is covered by the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.
It is usually estimated that at a given time there are at least 1,000 people living in Antarctica. This varies considerably with season. Generally, stations use their home country's time zone, but not always; where known, a base's UTC offset is listed. Although Antarctica has no permanent residents, a number of governments maintain permanent research stations throughout the continent. Many of the stations are staffed around the year.