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Antarctica is the southernmost continent in the world. It is also the only one that doesn't have any permanent residents, hence the lack of independent countries in the continent. Other extremes include 'highest' and 'driest'--seriously, it's a desert down there.
There are many claims to the various parts of the country made by the likes of Britain, Argentina, Australia, etc. The current "government" of the continent is run by what is known as the Antarctic Treaty which was signed in 1959. The treaty freezes all the territorial claims on the continent while setting it aside as a scientific reserve. It also bans all military activities on the continent, effectively making Antarctica a neutral country of sort. And yes, the United States did sign this one, although 'reserving' the right to make a claim later if it feels like it. Right now it's just research stations. Still, it's nice to know that not bombing the place was worth the Antarctic Treaty System (there's a bunch now) being in general one of the first arms control treaties of the Cold War.
It is also known as the home of the Emperor Penguins, and also the setting for the film March of the Penguins which documented the lives of the aforementioned penguins.
Another minor issue is the 'ozone hole'. In the mid-1980s, scientists noticed that the ozone layer over the south polar region would get very thin during springtime (for the southern hemisphere). This was traced to some man-made chemicals, usually called 'CFCs', for 'chlorofluorocarbons'. Most people finally figured out that atmospheric ozone is useful, and stopped making these.
So, aside from no precipitation, penguins, research stations, and a lack of ozone, what else is down here? Lately, a few tourists, but not a lot else. There are, however, two civilian settlements on the continent, Villa Las Estrellas and Esperanza Base, controlled by Chile and Argentina, respectfully.
People had generally figured something was down here for quite a while. Even the ancient Greeks thought so, if only to help balance the rest of the land mass up north. According to The Other Wiki, though, the first recognised discovery was around 1820 by a Russian expedition. And for most of the 19th century, that was about it. Even in 2012, it's a barren waste; imagine trying to live there in 1850.
Though it sounds crazy, there are several sub-glacial lakes scattered around the continent, buried beneath the ice sheet. They are far enough below the surface that water is insulated by the ice above and warmed by geothermal heat below, allowing it to remain in its liquid state. The largest of these lakes, Lake Vostok, has long been an interest of Antarctic explorers. Only in February of 2012, after twenty years of drilling, did a Russian research team finally break through the ice sheet to the surface of the lake.
Maps of the place can't put 'north' at the top, of course, as once you're down there, everything's north. The usual convention is to have the 'top' of the round map be the Prime Meridian. The continent is then 'split' into West (in the Western hemisphere) and East Antarctica. The Western bit has the Antarctic peninsula, that dangly bit on the side that eventually meanders up to South America.
As mentioned earlier, some nations claim some chunks of Antarctica. (Oddly, there's still a bit left, from 90 to 150 degrees west longitude. Register now!) Some of these overlap; more specifically, Argentina, Chile, and the United Kingdom each have a bit that has the peninsula. Even Those Wacky Nazis tried getting in on it (20ºE to 10ºW), although not much came out of it.
To keep the record, the claims are the following:
- United Kingdom: 20°W to 80°W
- New Zealand: 150°W to 160°E
- France: 142°2'E to 136°11'E
- Australia: 160°E to 142°2'E and 136°11'E to 44°38'E
- Norway: 44°38'E to 20°W
- It also claims Peter I Island, 68°50′S 90°35′W
- Chile: 53°W to 90°W
- Argentina: 25°W to 74°W
- The unclaimed territory, Marie Byrd Land, goes from 90°W to 150°W
See also Mysterious Antarctica for older depictions of Antarctica, Everything's Better with Penguins for its main inhabitants and Polar Bears and Penguins for the usual confusion between them, the polar bears and their respective habitats. If you're not careful, you risk to be Reassigned to Antarctica, also. Do not confuse with Green Antarctica.