Searching for Shackleton in the Undiscovered Continent of Antarctica

March 16, 2019

Paul Kay


What can you say about Antarctica besides it’s vast and uncomfortably cold for most of the season? How about Antarctica is nearly twice the size of Australia. Or ice averaging 6,200 feet thick covers almost 100 percent of the continent. Antarctica teems with beautiful and unique landscapes and wildlife. And the best part? It’s not a tourist trap; those who go are serious about travel. You’ll find few naive and hapless tourists bumbling around frustrating you and ruining your experience.

So here are some interesting Antarctica facts to inspire your own journey to the bottom of the world.

Landscape

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest and highest continent on Earth. That’s a lot of firsts for one place.

The Landscape of the Coast of Antarctica

Antarctica holds more than 90 percent of the world’s supply of fresh water. Yet some parts of Antarctica have had no rain or snow in two million years.

Lakes

Antarctica’s ice sheet has existed for at least 40 million years. Beneath the ice sheet are more than 200 lakes, most of which are kept from freezing by the warmth of Earth’s core. However, Deep Lake in East Antarctica is so salty that it never completely freezes. The lake’s salinity levels are 10 times higher than the ocean, which makes its waters ones of the least productive ecosystems in the world. The high salt levels also mean that even with water temperatures as low as ‒4° F, the lake remains liquid.

Lake Vostok, on the other hand, is a freshwater lake buried under two and a half miles of frozen water. This lake is about the size of Lake Ontario and is one of the more prominent lakes that have been discovered beneath the ice. Now that scientists are aware of these lakes, they are researching them and have found very interesting news. The lakes are absolutely teeming with microscopic life. Scientists are using the water samples to learn about how these miniscule creatures survive in such a harsh environment. The information and research studies can give the scientists an idea for how life might survive on other desolate planets, such as below the ice found on Mars.

Volcanoes

Antarctica is also home to volcanoes. The cold continent seems to be an unlikely location for volcanoes. There are plenty of extinct volcanoes in Antarctica, but there are two active ones. One of these is at Deception Island and is a very interesting and rare type. It’s located far beneath Antarctica’s ice. It has, what are called subglacial eruptions. All of Deception’s activity happens below the surface of the ice. Antarctica’s other active volcano, Mount Erebus, is picture perfect. It is the southernmost active volcano in the world and is home to the only known lava lakes, which have held liquid magma for eons despite the continent’s frigid conditions. Mount Erebus spews crystals and is very close to the U.S. Research Center.

Temperature

As I said earlier, Antarctica is on average the coldest, driest and windiest continent. It also has the highest average elevation of all the continents. Antarctica is an arctic desert, with annual precipitation of only eight inches. The low temperature in Antarctica has reached ‒128.6° F, so it is clearly not for meant for the average traveler. Between 1,000 to 5,000 people reside throughout the year at research stations scattered across the continent.

Landscape, Icebergs, Mountains and the Ocean at Sunrise, Antarctica

January and February are considered the summer months, with daytime temperatures reaching upwards of 50° F. At this time, the continent basks in nearly 24 hours of daylight. As a result, there is a short time period for sea passage. Many ships offer an Antarctic Circle crossing during these months.

History

The word Antarctic came about as a reference to the opposite of the Arctic circle. Marinus of Tyre was the first to call it Antarctica in the second century. During the fourth century, Aristotle theorized that there must be a landmass in the south like that of the northern hemisphere. Aristotle named the southern end of the earth Antarktikos, or the opposite end of Arktos, or bear in Greek). Aristotle believed that there must be a land mass in the south to balance the land in the north. Later, it was also called Terra Australis Incognita, or The Unknown South Land.

More recently, nations have established bases in Antarctica for exploration. The British were the first to establish a permanent base in Antarctica in 1944 for military reasons. The Australians established a scientific base in 1954. Today, many nations maintain bases in Antarctica. In 1958 Sir Edmund Hilary reached the South Pole. He was the first man to reach it since Captain Robert Falcon Scott in 1912.

Why You Should Go

Today, Antarctica is a combination of research facility and tourist destination.

Research Facility

One interesting fact for any budding researcher wanting to spend time in Antarctica: he or she will need to have all their wisdom teeth removed before applying. He or she also will need to have had his or her appendix removed. It’s probably not hard to imagine, but while medical support for someone living in Antarctica is adequate, there is no advanced hospital on the continent. Things that can be prevented must be.

Tourist Destination

For tourists, Antarctica is the unknown continent. It’s definitely hard to reach. Most people fly to either Buenos Aires, Argentina, or Santiago, Chile, as their first stop. From there, they fly to Ushuaia, where they meet their cruise ship. There are close to thirty cruise ships and the list is always changing.

Inflatable boat full of tourists Antarctic Peninsula Antarctica

Travel and tourism to Antarctica is highly regulated, and bookings for cruise ships seem to fill up quicker than any other cruise destination. I think the news on global warming has influenced some people to see Antarctica sooner rather than later.

Global Warming

Many people still do not believe in global warming, and I don’t want to start a debate. I’m not a scientist, but the research I have done suggests that the melting of glaciers is a relatively new and constant phenomenon. Around 2009, multiple glaciers along a vast coastal expanse, measuring some 450 miles in length, suddenly started to shed ice into the ocean at a nearly constant rate of 55 trillion liters of water each year. The ice loss is so large it causes small changes in the gravity field of the Earth, which can be detected by another satellite mission, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE).

Science Magazine stated this year that the melting is continuing. However, Nature Magazine reported in 2018 that the ice sheets in Antarctica are getting larger. Regardless of which scientists you believe, it still might be a good place to visit sooner rather than later.

What You’ll See

In any case, Antarctica has plenty to offer. You’ve seen cute penguins at the zoo, but in Antarctica there are penguin rookeries as far as the eye can see. Your cruise ship likely will allow you to get up close and personal with the penguins. They know tourists are not predators and are intensely curious about what we are doing when we’re on the same snow bank as them.

King Penguin, Antarctica

In Antarctica you can you see giant blue icebergs rising from the sea. Whales and marine mammals are abundant in Antarctica, and travelers can see species rarely seen farther north, such as leopard seals and massive blue whales.

From a historical point of view, Antarctic history teems with famous names like Drake, Cook, Hillary, Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton. If you are a history buff, you can walk in the footsteps of these history giants.

Antarctica is a dream location for photo enthusiasts, with picture-perfect landscapes and accessible wildlife. Madeline can’t wait to try out her photography skills on the missing continent from our list. Antarctica is on every nature and adventure traveler’s list but few set foot there.

Humpback Whale Tail with Kayaks, Antarctica

We traveled Antarctica in December 2019 and January 2020. It was on our bucket list. Is it on yours? Our trip there proved amazing and everything we could have hoped for. We highly recommend this trip of a lifetime!

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Antarctica, Day 1: Santiago to Ushuaia

  1. ???? if deep lakes in Antarctica, Vostok , for example , are liquid lakes, therefore, the ice above does not scrape the bottom of these lakes, scouring it , pushing dirt rock etc outward……

    If that IS the case, then would it not be possible, that in the sediment on the lake bed, could be the remains of whatever life lived there when the climate was “not frozen” , be that animal or vegetation,

    Hmmm and just as I say that , I think I may be about to answer it myself….. Antarctica’s shift from warm to frozen would have taken considerable time, and a climate shift would have sent living creatures to escape, leaving little evidence of them ever having been there …

    Except …. ?…. when Antarctica split from Australia? and became an island , ocean now surrounded it , waters cooling rapidly …. maybe there would have been some life now stranded with no means of getting off.

    Lost track of my 1st question, ????????

    It’d be interesting if ever possible to lower a submersible to check out the bottom of the lake ????????

  2. The Russians have been trying to analyze Lake Vostok for over 20 years. They created a probe called Cryobot in 1996. They made some progress but funding was not consistent. The lake itself is said to have more than 3,500 species. I wonder what Shackleton would have thought of this type of exploration today?

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