A journey to the Antarctic continent

Antarctica is the southernmost continent on earth and is comprised of territories below the 60th parallel south.

Source: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.
Source: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.

It has an area of 14,000,000 km2 , with an average elevation of 2000 meters above sea level. Vinson Massif is the highest peak on the continent at 4897 m.a.s.l. Ninety-eight percent of the surface is covered by ice and it is home to the largest ice sheet on the planet, with some glaciers measuring over 3000 meters thick. It is a distinct landscape, made even more unique by the day and night cycles: during the summer months there is no night and therefore, twilight phases can last for several hours.

Governance in Antarctica

The continent is governed by the Antarctic Treaty, which went into force in 1961 and establishes a legal framework for the administration and management of the region. In short, it provides a set of regulations intended to protect the continent’s resources and calls for: Antarctica to be used for peaceful purposes only, the prohibition of military activities, freedom of scientific research and cooperation, a freezing of territorial claims and the prohibition of nuclear testing, among others.

A majority of the Member States maintain scientific research stations in Antarctica. Chile has four permanent bases (which operate year-round) and four seasonal bases (summer only), plus field camps.

King George Island

The Chilean research station Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva on King George Island is Chile’s largest research base and one of the most important in Antarctica. It is located on the Fildes Peninsula on Fildes Bay. It neighbors the Escudero research station (also Chilean) and the Bellingshausen research station (Russian). It has an airfield that is used by many of the other research bases. It also encompasses the Villa las Estrellas community that is home to 72 people on average in winter and more than 150 people during the summer months. It offers various services including a hospital, a school, a bank, a small supermarket, a post office and a chapel. The population of Villa las Estrellas is spilt between scientists and members of Inach (Instituto Antártico Chileno/Chilean Antarctic Institute), Chilean Air Force (FACH) staff, who oversee the airstrip, and various civilians: teachers who work at the school and employees of the bank, post office, civil registry and hospital.

Another view of Fildes Bay, with the Bellingshausen (Russia), Frei and Escudero (Chile) research stations. A small stream separates the Chilean and Russian bases. Crédits: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.

The Great Wall Station (China). Crédits: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.

Flora and Fauna

The bad weather does not bother the Chinstrap penguins or the sea lion. Crédits: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.

The flora and fauna in the Antarctic is limited primarily to coastal areas. Antarctic flora is made up of the so-called lower plants -algae, fungi, lichens and mosses- which live in the few areas not covered by ice. Often the snow is yellow, red or green due to the presence of “snow algae.” There are no trees and there are only 350 species of vegetation.

The closest thing to an Antarctic garden. It is estimated that 160 million years ago, Antarctica was covered in lush tropical vegetation. Crédits: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.

The ocean is both directly and indirectly the only source of food for the animals that either permanently or temporarily inhabit Antarctica.

No terrestrial vertebrates live in the interior part of the continent. However, invertebrates can be found, especially mites and ticks, which are able to tolerate the low temperatures.

Among the birds in Antarctica, the most well-known are the penguins. There are five species of penguins, three of which migrate during the winter to lower latitudes; the other two – the Emperor penguin and the Adelie penguin- remain in Antarctica throughout the entire year.

Adelie Penguins. Crédits: Juan Cristobal Hurtado from Ladera Sur.

Other birds are also found in Antarctica such as the kelp gull, the Chilean skua and several varieties of petrels: the Cape petrel, white and black. The Antarctic sheathbill often remains in Antarctica throughout the year. Cormorants and albatrosses can also be seen.

Marine fauna includes a few fishes, krill, seals and whales.
There are 5 species of seals: the elephant seal, the leopard seal, the Ross seal, the Weddell seal and the Crabeater seal, in addition to the sea lion.

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