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The Antarctica

Updated on March 1, 2012

The fifth-largest continent, Antarctica has an icesheet covering 14,245,000 km2

Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth; the lowest temperature ever recorded was -88°c at Vostok, Antarctica, on 24 August 1960. It is ringed by pack-ice, which drifts constantly with the currents and winds, expanding and contracting with the temperature and season.

Antarctica was the last continent to be discovered and explored. The existence of a great southern land mass had been discussed since the time of the ancient Greeks. Although many attempts were made to discover and claim this land, it was not until Captain Cook's expedition of 1772-1775, which circumnavigated the continent, that the first accurate knowledge of its size and shape was obtained. Although the United States and Britain both claimed that their ships were the first to sight the Antarctica mainland, as opposed to the pack-ice that surrounded it, it was a Russian, von Bellingshausen, who made the first true sighting, on 28 January 1820. Cook's journals mentioned the abundance of seals in the Southern Ocean and his voyage was followed by a succession of hunting expeditions.

So concentrated were the expeditions that, by 1780, only a decade after sealing began, the northern fur seal had been hunted almost to extinction. After the Russian-financed von Bellingshausen expedition, the British, French, American and German governments mounted surveying and research expeditions. All the nineteenth-century expeditions were carried out by sea, the first land expedition being mounted in 1901-1904 by the Swedish geologist Otto Nordeskjold. The Swedish expedition was rapidly followed by those of Scott, Shackleton and Amundsen. On 14 December 1911, Amundsen's expedition became the first to reach the South Pole. An American, Admiral Richard Byrd, made the first flight over Antarctica, in November 1929, and later aerial-survey and photographic expeditions greatly increased Man's knowledge of the continent's terrain.

By 1958, the surface of Antarctica had been roughly mapped, its coastline was delineated and both the geographic and magnetic South Poles had been reached.

The 1957-1958 expedition of Vivian Fuchs and Edmund Hillary crossed the continent by land. The quest for scientific knowledge about the geology, biology and meteorology of the continent reached a climax in the period 1957-1958, the International Geophysical Year (IGY), when 12 nations established 65 research stations on or around Antarctica. This scientific work continued after the end of the IGY and, in 1959, the Antarctica Treaty was signed by all the countries participating in Antarctic research, as well as by Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Poland and the Netherlands.

This treaty states that Antarctica is to be used for peaceful purposes only-political claims on the territory, nuclear explosions and the dumping of atomic waste being banned-that all observations and discoveries are to be freely available and that scientific cooperation is to be maintained.

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