Key physical features
What is distinctive about Antarctica’s landscape?
Antarctica is unique among the continents for being almost totally covered by glacier ice. Although this ice cover in its entirety is often referred to as a single ice sheet (the Antarctic Ice Sheet), there are in fact two major areas of ice which differ from each other in both their physical characteristics and history: the East and West Antarctic Ice Sheets. The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is both larger and thicker than the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, as well as being much older.
The continent itself is not centred over the South Pole, and instead, the greater portion of Antarctica lies within the Eastern Hemisphere (as defined by the Prime Meridian). The West Antarctic Ice Sheet occupies a smaller area of land within the Western Hemisphere and is flanked by the Weddell Sea on one side and the Ross Sea on the other. The Transantarctic Mountains extend across the continent forming a convenient physical boundary to demarcate East Antarctica (or Greater Antarctica) from West Antarctica (or Lesser Antarctica). Most of Antarctica is south of the Antarctic Circle, with the exception of parts of the East Antarctic coastline and the Antarctic Peninsula which extends northwards from West Antarctica to about 63°S.
Islands and ice shelves
In addition to the continental land mass, Antarctica has several large and small islands; for example, the South Shetland Islands just north of the Antarctic Peninsula. Some of Antarctica’s islands are permanently linked to the mainland by ice, whereas others are connected only seasonally in step with the pattern of sea ice expansion and retreat. Much of the continent’s coastline is fringed by ice shelves. The largest of these are the Ross Ice Shelf in the Ross Sea and the Ronne Ice Shelf in the Weddell Sea. Each of these ice shelves cover an area greater than the British Isles.
Dry Valleys are another intriguing type of landscape found in Antarctica. These are found in high altitude areas of extreme aridity. Good examples can be found in the Victoria Land region near the McMurdo research station.
Some low lying coastal areas of Antarctica, particularly along the Peninsula, have micro-climate and topographic conditions which cause enough melting during the austral summer to allow some land to remain free of glaciers.
For more information about Antarctica’s physical features.
Add a scale bar to your map. Estimate what is the nearest distance to South America from the Antarctic Peninsula.
Just over 1000KM
Estimate the width of Antarctica from its coastline at 90°W to the opposite coastline at 90°E. (Hint: estimate the degrees of latitude between the two positions and convert degrees to nautical miles and then nautical miles to kilometres) (1 degree of latitude = 60 minutes, 1 minute = 1 nautical mile, 1 nautical mile = 1.852 km)
Estimate the distance along the Prime Meridian from London to the edge of the ice shelf (Fimbul Ice Shelf) extending from the coast of Queen Maud Land.