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Antarctic information


Antarctica is the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent. It’s technically a desert, with annual precipitation of just 200 millimetres along the coast and even less inland. The temperature has reached as low as -89°C which means the only way for life forms to survive there is to adapt to the extreme cold. Species such as springtails, nematodes, bacteria, algae, penguins, seals, whales, phytoplankton, and krill are among these life forms.

About 98% of Antarctica is covered with ice – ice sheets, shelves and sea ice. At 14 million square kilometres, Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent, and twice the size of Australia.

It’s something of an alien landscape – in fact, Antarctica’s Dry Valleys have been deemed earth’s closest equivalent to Mars. At New Zealand’s scientific research facility, Scott Base (77 degrees south), the summer brings four months of continuous sunlight and the winter four months of continuous darkness. The lack of permanent inhabitants means there is very little light pollution (winter is the best time to spot the Aurora Australis).

Southern Ocean

Surrounding all that ice is the Southern Ocean. These waters are the southernmost of the world’s ocean system and is where cold, northward-flowing waters from the Antarctic mix with warmer Sub Antarctic waters. It’s in this ecological melting-pot that some truly amazing wildlife flourishes.

The Southern Ocean’s array of marine animals exists and relies, directly or indirectly, on the phytoplankton in the Southern Ocean. Antarctic sea life includes penguins, blue whales, killer whales, colossal squids, fur seals and toothfish.

Important research is being conducted in the Southern Ocean, most from aboard vessels such as NIWA’s RV Tangaroa, with a focus on the ocean’s marine ecosystems and ocean acidification.

New Zealand Subantarctic Islands

These wild and rugged islands – the Antipodes, Auckland, Bounty, Campbell and Snares Islands – are the five southernmost groups of New Zealand’s outlying islands and are collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Islands are home to some of the most abundant and unique wildlife on earth; many of its birds, plants and invertebrates can’t be found anywhere else in the world. The Subantarctic Islands are particularly renowned for the large number – and wide diversity – of the penguins and other seabirds that nest there.

The Islands are uninhabited and are managed by the Department of Conservation and can only be reached by boat through the wild oceans and winds known as the roaring 40s and howling 50s.

The Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty has been signed by 50 nations, 29 of which are consultative members with active research programmes in Antarctica. The Treaty designates Antarctica as a “natural reserve, devoted to peace and science.”

The Treaty was signed in Washington DC on 1 December 1959 by the twelve countries, including New Zealand, whose scientists were active in and around Antarctica during the International Geophysical Year (IGY) 1957–1958. It came into force in 1961 and has since been acceded to by many other nations.

Understanding our planet

A large amount of the research coming out of Antarctica contributes to our understanding of how the world operates. Antarctica’s extremely cold and saline waters drive the global thermohaline ocean circulation. Its deep ice and sediment cores offer a window into the planet’s past climate, enabling us to understand about past climate change and how this may affect us in the future. The geology in Antarctica was one of the key pieces in the puzzle in drawing together the history of Gondwanaland. The atmospheric influences of Antarctica drive most of the weather that we receive in New Zealand. The continent and ocean’s varied wildlife allows us to lift the lid on different aspects of biology, such as teaching us about how organisms adapt to extreme conditions – from antifreeze developed in fish species, to the desiccation of springtail species.