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Antarctica is the southernmost continent and the fifth largest on the planet. It is also the location of the South Pole, the only pole that has a land location. It has no permanent human habitation being the only continent that does not have a native human population. Most settlements are scientific outposts where scientists do research.
Antarctica is basically one vast frozen desert. The continent gets less than 8 in. of rain per year on the coast and less than 20 mm in the interior. Some places are even drier receiving effectively no precipitation. This makes it one of the most arid climates in the world. On top of that the entire continent is covered in polar ice. The ice on average 1.6 km thick and is one of the world’s primary sources of fresh water.
The really interesting facts surround its discovery and exploration. Since ancient times, people have proposed a hypothetical southern continent. It would not be until 1770s that explorers would have the technology to make attempts to reach it. The first explorer to cross the Antarctic Circle and attempt to approach the continent was Captain James Cook. His first attempt was on January 7, 1774. He would later come within 75 miles of the coast. The first documented sighting of Antarctica to have occurred in 1820 by a Russian expedition.
The first exploration team to actually land on Antarctica was the U.S. Navy led United States Exploring Expedition which landed on the continent in 1839. Further exploration with the goal of reaching the South Pole would soon follow. As countries started to further explore Antarctica the necessity for a treaty to govern actions on the continent culminated in the 1959 Antarctic Treaty. The treaty now has 46 member nations. The treaty sets aside the continent as a natural preserve and allows for only scientific research.
We’ve also recorded an episode of Astronomy Cast all about planet Earth. Listen here, Episode 51: Earth.