Frequently Asked Questions about Antarctica

1/ Why doesn't it rain in Antarctica ?

The simple answer is that it's too cold. What would be rain falls as snow instead, but not very much of that falls either, Antarctica is classed as a desert as so little snow falls, it's just that being so cold, it doesn't go anywhere and so builds up until it's kilometers thick. Actually, even much of that "snow" isn't really snow but ice crystals that form in the air, fall out and build up very slowly over time.

2/ Where is the South Pole ?

Unlike the North Pole the South Pole is inland. It is near the middle of the Great Antarctic ice sheet at an altitude of 2800 m. It is 1230 km from the nearest coast. The ice at the Pole is moving at about 10 m per year. Each year staff at the Amundsen-Scott (USA) station, at the South Pole, move the marker flag to compensate for the movement of the ice.

The Magnetic South Pole (opposite to the Magnetic North Pole we all point our compasses at) on the other hand doesn't have a fixed position, it drifts about continually by quite a long way. It was first reached during Shackleton's British Antarctic Expedition (1907-1909) by Professor Edgeworth David and Sir Douglas Mawson (Australian geologists) and Alistair Mackay.

At that time the magnetic pole lay within the Antarctic continent at latitude 71.6°S and longitude 152°E. Today the Magnetic South Pole lies far out to sea at latitude 64°S and longitude 137°E, around 1057km (660 miles) away, it travels 10 to 15 km each year. The pole wanders daily in a roughly elliptical path around this average position, and may be as far as 80 km away from this position when the Earth's magnetic field is disturbed.

3/ What do you pack in your survival kits?

Depends what you mean by a survival kit. Scientists in Antarctica generally live on a base or station where everything is provided for them. Like living in a sort of hotel - except there aren't any staff to do things for you! Apart from the specialist jobs on many bases everyone takes it in turns to do the mundane unskilled work. Near to many bases is a hut that contains enough tents, clothing and food for a full base compliment for about 18 months, just in case the base burns down and they are left with nothing, pretty bad news in the middle of a Antarctic winter with no chance of rescue for a few months.

When going off base to stay in tents or huts, there are sufficient rations for much longer than the intended stay. The saying is "pitch your tent as though you're there for a month, even though it may only be a night" If the wind gets up, then a storm could (and has in the past) kept the people in their tent for a month, unable to leave because of the terrible weather.

In huts and tents away from the station, there is everything needed to stay alive in really low temperatures. Paraffin stove and lamp, loads of high energy food, synthetic camping mat, air mattress and thick sheepskin on top of this, then two huge great down filled sleeping bags with a big hood, and of course lots of layers of very warm clothing. Fuel is very important too, there's plenty of frozen water about but it needs melting for drinks and cooking, when travelling most food is dehydrated to save weight and space.

4/ How do people survive the cold in Antarctica ?

You wrap up warm in layers and several of them. It's very important to properly cover the extremities and places where heat might escape easily too, feet, ankles, hands, wrists and your head. Mainly synthetic fibers these days, not forgetting insulated footwear too. Clothes need to be kept dry and clean to maintain their best insulating qualities.

UV (ultra-violet) radiation is fierce in the summer so wearing wrap-round goggles and sun screen on any exposed skin is just as important as keeping warm in the winter. It can be quite a surprise to get sun burnt under your nose from the light reflected from snow and ice.

Survival is largely about not being caught out in the worst weather, not getting lost in whiteout conditions and not taking unnecessary risks. This means you must be well-trained to carry out your activities, careful about how you dress and work in a team where each member watches the others for signs of "frost-nip" and hypothermia.

Food is very important. Clothing keeps the body heat from escaping, plenty of nutritious food feeds the furnace from the inside and helps generate warmth.

Despite what people often assume, the Antarctic is not a place to take risks, but a place where weather extremes are planned for in advance and survival actions are a well rehearsed drill.

More on Antarctic clothing | More on Antarctic food

5/ Has a whale ever hit an iceberg?

Not on purpose! Icebergs are part of the scenery as far as whales are concerned, like trees are to elephants I suppose. Maybe one's hit one while looking the other way, but no great consequence other than a bumped snout - and some embarrassment in case his mates were looking.  (to be honest, this isn't actually a very frequently asked question, but I liked it anyway)

6/ Have you ever seen an ice berg fall into the water?

Yes, and I was only about 250m away from it in a small boat at the time! It started with a bit of rumbling and a few snowballs fell from the top, then a huge great column of ice like a couple of office blocks slid into the water. This caused an enormous wave and we thought for a while that we'd be overwhelmed, but were ok after much rocking about. It's one of those things that it's good to be able to say happened to you, but you wouldn't choose to do it!

The largest icebergs don't actually "fall" off at all. Those huge flat (tabular) ones you may have heard of, slide down to the sea as part of a glacier and then start to float while still attached. Eventually after many years of being pushed out into the sea a crack forms and they float free, a much less exciting way of being formed than much smaller ones that can do fall a long way with much drama.

7/ Is there a rubbish (garbage) truck in Antarctica?

Antarctic bases are much more environmentally friendly these days than they used to be. Most are small with around 15 people in winter and 50 in summer, so there's no truck. All waste is crushed and segregated into different types before being taken out by the ships that bring in the new supplies. The waste is then dealt with in the home country.

8/ How many species of animals live in Antarctica?

Not sure really, but not that many. As you move away from the tropics towards colder climates, there is a general reduction in the number of species, but increase of numbers of individuals of a species. So Antarctica has not so many different type of animal - but loads of each, the tropics have loads of types, but not so many of each. The second most numerous mammal in the world after man is the crabeater seal - a typical Antarctic animal. There is a much greater variety of species in the sea than on the land.

9/ What sort of clothes do you wear in Antarctica?

Thin layers and several of them. It's very important to cover ankles, wrists and your head. Mainly synthetic fibers these days. More on Antarctic clothing

10/ What happens if you run out of food?

Unlikely (see above), in the extreme case we had rifles and skinning knives in order to capture and eat penguins and seals. At my base I was a marine biologist, so we had boats and nets and could have caught fish to eat (in fact we did eat some of the extra ones we caught).

Does anyone live (permanently) in Antarctica? Are there towns there?

No on lives in Antarctica permanently, there are bases and settlements that look like towns, but they are places where people arrive and stay for anywhere between about 3 and 18 months, there are always people there at many of them, but the people quickly move on. The purpose of the bases is to do science stuff, if you aren't part of the scientific or support teams you can' really visit or stay there.

12/ If the temperature got to 50 degrees C, how long would it take to melt all of Antarctica?

Don't know - ages - there's about 30 million cubic kilometres of ice in Antarctica. Enough to cover the whole of Australia to a depth of 4 km, and most of it is a lot colder than inside your home freezer.

13/ Do they sometimes use huskies in expeditions?

Not any more. As a part of the environmental protection, no non-native species are allowed to be taken to Antarctica, the last huskies were taken out in 1994. While they were really useful in the early days up to about the 1960's, they were superseded for transport many years before they were removed by motor powered vehicles.

14/ How do you know the ozone layer is there when you can't see it?

You can detect it with special instruments. Like you can detect oxygen, carbon dioxide, radio waves and electricity even though you can't see them either.

15/ Are children allowed to go to Antarctica?

Allowed to - yes, but don't often go. Everyone who goes with a country's Antarctic programme has a job to do, children don't have jobs and so don't go. Children can go as tourists although the cruises are very much aimed at adults and I imagine most children would find them fairly boring for much of the time - like a load of other things adults seem to enjoy.

There are two very small schools however at the Argentinian Esperanza Base and also the Chilean Presidente Eduardo Frei Montalva Base, both on the Antarctic Peninsula. The parents of these children work at these bases.

Up to 2009, there were eleven children born in Antarctica at either an Argentine or Chilean base. In both cases, they were part of a deliberate attempt to strengthen national territorial claims.

16/ What kind of jobs are there in Antarctica and what is the lifestyle like?

Antarctic bases exist for scientific research, so jobs are scientific or support for the scientists.

Scientific: marine biologist, bird biologist, lake biologist, microbiologist, atmospheric scientists, geologists, climatologists and lots of other sorts of 'ologists!

Support: radio operator, boatman, mechanic, electrician, doctor, cook, diver, carpenter.

More on jobs in Antarctica

17/ Does Antarctica have electricity?

Yes it does. Usually provided by diesel powered generators at each base, but increasingly stations are installing wind turbines to generate supplementary electricity. This makes sense as Antarctica is the windiest place on earth, but poses a problem in case the strong winds damage the wind turbines. Every station has to have its own electricity generating capability as they are all self contained.

18/ What Sound do Penguins Make?

Penguins have harsh raucous voices. They are somewhat variable in the adults but tend to be a sort of loud "Awk", Jackass penguins are named after the braying sound of their namesake. When courting, they make gentler sounds of an elongated awwww.... ending in the inevitable shouted "awk, awk, awk". Penguin chicks on the other hand make the same sort of cute cheeping sounds that many other birds make.

19/ What is the Antarctic Circle?

The Antarctic Circle is an imaginary line that runs around the earth at 66°33' 44'' (66.5622°) South. It encompasses the great majority of the Antarctic continent and large areas of the Southern Ocean. It is the line that marks where for at least one day of the year, the sun is continually above or below the horizon so giving 24 hours of daylight or nighttime. On the circle itself, there will just be one day a year of each (full daylight at midsummer and then full night at midwinter), the further you go south, the longer the period of constant day or night until you get to the pole itself. At the pole there is 6 months of daylight followed by 6 months of night.

This situation is mirrored in the north by the Arctic Circle.