Did you know that Antarctica is twice the size of Australia? I didn’t until I signed up for an Antarctica Cruise with Poseidon Expeditions.
Although Antarctica is larger than Europe, the average person in the street knows very little about the world’s southernmost continent. If anything, they probably imagine an endless stretch of snow devoid of life. The reality is quite different.
Antarctica’s scenery is unique. With the highest average elevation of any continent, mountains are common. However, they’re so covered by ancient snow and glaciers that only the sheerest faces are exposed. This high average elevation makes Antarctica much colder than the Arctic.
When you’re approaching on a cruise ship, what you’re seeing is the coastline and not the interior. Some of Antarctica’s long coastline creeps outside of the Antarctic circle and doesn’t experience midnight sun or polar nights.
While snowstorms are common at low elevations along the coast, the higher interior sees such little precipitation that it’s technically a desert. In some ways, it’s a bit like Australia, with a thriving coastline but a huge central region where life is much more challenging.
The deep blue water along the coast contains icebergs of all shapes and sizes, from brash-ice fragments to small floating islands that loom over the cruise ship.
Sadly, you don’t get to see the Aurora Australis on an Antarctic cruise. This magical light show is invisible during the day, and cruises only run during the summer months when the day can last twenty-four hours (midnight sun).
The reason for no cruises in winter is obvious. With twenty-four-hour nights (polar nights) from mid-April through August, you wouldn’t be able to see much during the short days on a winter cruise. On the other hand, if you go on a midsummer cruise, you might get up to twenty-four hours of sun!
Also, while average temperatures along the coast in January are around 26.60F, in August they plummet to -14.80F (based on readings at McMurdo Station on Ross Island). Camping during the Antarctic winter would be challenging, even along the relatively warm coastline.
Something to note is that the frozen snow of Antarctica reflects back a lot of ultraviolet light (UV). A recent report from the Australian Radiation and Nuclear Safety Agency and the Australian Antarctic Division revealed that over 80% of Antarctic researchers were potentially exposed to UV five times the recommended limits. That’s almost as high as the lifeguards along California’s southern coastline. For that reason, sunblock is essential in Antarctica.
Most people are aware that penguins live in Antarctica. However, they’re not the only animal found within the Antarctic Circle. Killer and humpback whales come here during the summer to feast on the abundant stocks of copepods, krill, plankton, and small fish found in the pristine waters around Antarctica. Crabeater, leopard, and Weddell seals are also prosperous in these cold waters.
But it’s penguins you’ll notice the most. Along the Antarctic Peninsula and the coastline of the South Shetland Islands, you’ll see noisy nesting colonies of adélie, chinstrap, and gentoo penguins. If you join a cruise, take along a good pair of bird watching binoculars. Watch out for the slightly smaller birds covered with grey or brown down. Those are the chicks born over the winter that are preparing to leave the nest toward the end of summer.
The South Shetland Islands dispel the myth that Antarctica is a white and frozen wilderness. Despite the low temperatures, these islands feature tundra vegetation such as algae, lichens, and mosses.
You can see evidence of human life, too. There are ruins of a whaling station and a collection of scientific research stations run by different nations. Port Lockroy in Wiencke Island off the western coast of the peninsula even boasts a gift shop, museum, and the most southerly post office in the world.
Some cruises to Antarctica also take in the treeless and windswept Falkland Islands in the South Atlantic Ocean. This archipelago 752 miles north of the Antarctic Peninsula is awash with fascinating wildlife. There are five species of penguins and many other rare bird species.
While it certainly feels cold when you visit Antarctica, it’s warmer now that it has ever been. If you visit, you’ll still have to wear layers and dress for the cold weather, even in midsummer. But you won’t be exposed to temperatures as low as the earliest explorers and whalers experienced.
Over the past fifty years, Antarctica has become one of the fastest-warming areas of the world. In February 2020, a record high temperature of 650F was recorded, and glacier outflow has increased. Globally, the sea level has risen over 2.6 inches since 1993. However, this warming has yet to cause significant melting of the mile-thick layer of ice that covers most of the continent. 80% of the world’s freshwater reserves are still frozen here.
So, the biggest lesson I learned from visiting Antarctica is that nature is delicately balanced. With so much water trapped at the South Pole, small changes in global temperature could easily lead to eight of the world’s ten largest cities slipping into the seas. In fact, in 2005 NASA noticed a specific event when temperatures rose to 410F, and an area of ice the size of California briefly melted before refreezing.
With that in mind, perhaps it’s time to take reducing our carbon footprint more seriously. As a species, we need to reduce our carbon emissions and increase our environmental preservation efforts.
What I Learned
A visit to Antarctica is life-changing. You see many beautiful things, from cute penguins rearing their young to snow-covered mountains. You experience environmental conditions you won’t find anywhere else in the world. You visit places that humanity has barely touched. And you learn to value life more than ever before.