The Loneliest and Remotest Continent
Antarctica is the coldest of the seven continents and the most isolated. It is an extreme and extraordinary wilderness, frozen in time. The Antarctic can be a very dangerous place to visit, as so many explorers have found to their great cost. ‘In the wilderness, expect nothing — simply do the best you can.’ If you dig down just a little way you touch snow that fell before you were born and before your grandparents were born. Only one hundred metres below the South Pole itself is snow that fell over a thousand years before.
There are no human inhabitants living in the Antarctic, although up to 10,000 scientists and support staff work in the region during the summer months. This immediately falls to 1,000 with the onset of winter. It then truly becomes the land of the Big Freezer. On average up to 10,000 explorers, travellers and tourists also visit every year. It is by far the windiest of all the continents (sometimes gusting up to 320 km/h) easily the most inhospitable. It is 58 times the size of the United Kingdom, twice the size of Australia and one and half times the size of the United States. It is an area of 14 million square kilometres, 10 per cent of the Earth’s land mass.
Arctic Circle Map Photo Gallery
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The epicentre is the South Pole which is 1,235 km from the closest coastline and is on a high polar plateau (rising up to 3,850m). At the South Pole it can be as cold as -75 oC although the world record for the lowest temperature occurred at the Russian Antarctic station Vostok, where -89 oC was logged in July 1983.
In recent years, a vast freshwater lake has been charted in the Vostok region, appropriately named Lake Vostok, some 200 km long. Its deepest waters are estimated to be a million years old and there is a surface area of some 14,000 square kilometres. It is believed that the lake, some 4 km under the ice, is kept from being frozen by the heat radiating from the Earth’s core as well as the insulation provided by the ice. At a depth of 3,000 metres the pressure would be so great that water would only boil at 400 oC. No one yet knows what could be lurking in these waters but certainly ancient bacterial life forms and microbes. It is essential that the continuing exploratory drillings through the ice cover do not allow any contamination to penetrate through. All drillings take place in several slow stages, allowing the ice to refreeze above until the titanium probe finally bites through, first releasing a sterilant before the breakthrough. At some stage the probe will send out a swimming robot the size of a small thermos flask containing a video camera, a computer, a spectrometer, lights and sensors for measuring heat, light and pressure and whatever else they can cram in. The Natural Environment Research Council has also created a submersible robot, Autosub, which will have the ability to explore places no manned research vessel or human divers could ever reach. It will have a range of 1,000 km and a diving depth of 1,500m.
In this unexplored lake, as in other parts of Antarctica, undoubtedly there will be found resilient extremophiles. These are minute organisms that have adapted to live in extreme conditions: thousands of metres under the sea, hidden within the coldest Antarctic conditions, surviving in boiling water or even living inside rocks and stones. Whichever kind they are, they are undoubtedly some of the hardiest of life forms and a great deal will be learned from studying them. Everything in a wilderness has a use or possibly even multiple uses, the secret is to learn what they are.