Antarctica is also the highest continent. Because of the thickness of the ice sheet, the average elevation is 2300 meters (about 7500 feet). Interestingly, however, the ice is so heavy in West Antarctica that it has pushed the actual continent below sea level. Were the ice sheet to melt, West Antarctica would be underwater. The ice sheet is so thick in Antarctica that there are mountains and lakes that are partially or completely covered by ice. The entire Antarctic ice sheet holds about 68% of the world’s freshwater.
The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was in Antarctica at Russia’s Vostok Station and was 129.3˚F/89.6˚C. However, temperatures along the coast, where most scientists work, average 5 to 14˚F/-10 to -15˚C. In the winter temperatures are quite cold (around 40˚F/˚C) so most of Antarctica’s researchers and support staff come in the summer (October – February), although a few hardy souls stay there in the winter.
Antarctica has relatively few species of plants and animals, which is probably due to the fact that only 2% of the continent is free of ice. There are only two types of flowering plants. Most of the plant life in Antarctica is in the form of mosses and lichens. On the warmer sub-Antarctic islands, more diverse plant life can be found. Animal species are similarly limited to small insects and single celled organisms. The penguins, seals, and other seabirds that might come to the continent and nearby islands are not native to the continent. Only two species of penguins, the Emperors and Adelies, are considered fully “Antarctic” because they spend significant time on the Antarctic continent (though not all colonies are based on the continent).
Marine life in the ocean around Antarctica is less diverse than that found in warmer seas but is more diverse than scientists might expect given the harsh conditions. There are approximately 7500 marine animal species in the Southern Ocean according to the recent Census of Antarctic Marine Life, from starfish to krill to toothfish.
ASOC's mission is to protect and preserve this unique place, which is the heritage of all humankind.