Antarctica is the fifth-largest continent on Earth. Antarctica is the only continent permanently covered in ice and snow. It is almost completely covered by the Antarctic Ice Sheet, the world’s largest ice sheet averaging 1 mile (1.6 km) thick.
Antarctica is divided into two parts, East and West, separated by the Transantarctic Mountains. The eastern part of Antarctica is a flat plateau covered by ice. The western smaller part of Antarctica (sometimes referred to as Lesser Antarctica) has a varied landscape of snow-covered tundra along the coast and snow and ice-covered mountains and plateaus inland. The western part of Antarctica has much in common with the Andes Mountains of South America. The highest peak in Antarctica is Mount Vinson which is 16,066 feet (4,897 m) above sea level. It is located in western Antarctica near the Ronne Ice Shelf.
The average annual temperature in Antarctica ranges from -76 degrees Fahrenheit (-60°C) at the most elevated parts of the interior to 14°F (-10°C) along the coast. The coldest temperature recorded in Antarctica was -139°F (-9°C). The warmest temperature ever recorded in Antarctica was 63.5°F (17.5°C); that was at Esperanza Base about 600 miles (1,000 km) away from the tip of South America.
Antarctica’s extreme cold means most forms of life are confined to the ocean waters that surround it. There are no trees or bushes in Antarctica. Only simple plants such as mosses, lichen, and algae grow there. Occasionally small flowers grow in summer. Antarctica is entirely surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Penguins, seals, whales, fish, and krill live in the waters around Antarctica. Male penguins are the only animals that remain in Antarctica in winter; they stay to take care of their eggs while the females go to sea to feed.
The mass of the Antarctic Ice Sheet has a volume of more than 7.2 million cubic miles (30 million cubic km). It holds more than 60 percent of the Earth’s freshwater. It weighs so much that it depresses the Earth’s crust by about 3,000 feet (900 m). The weight of the ice is so heavy that parts of the Antarctic’s landmass lie mostly below sea level. Thie lowest point in Antarctica is the Bentley Subglacial Trench which is 8,327 feet (2,538 m) below sea level.
Also of interest: