Capital Capitals: Antarctica

The capital city of Antarctica is…wait. There are no countries, no governments, and thus, no cities in Antarctica. Sitting on the bottom of the world, squished and outshined by the other continents, Antarctica wails with feelings of unappreciation. Neglected, this uninhabited continent (a population of 0 permanent residents) is often skimmed over, never garnering much attention. But if we change our point of view, Antarctica could actually be at the very top of Earth, reigning over all other continents. And maybe we should look from this perspective since, as we’ll see below, there are plenty of pretty interesting facts about the coldest, driest, highest and windiest continent in the world.

Since the days of Aristotle, great minds have pondered over the notion of Terra Australis, or South Land. These thinkers speculated on the size, climate, and population of the unknown land. It wasn’t until the mid-1500s that cartographers started to consistently put a new continent on globes and maps, although they hadn’t any clue where the boundaries lay. It is generally agreed that Antarctica was finally sighted in 1820, but due to the hostile environment explorers didn’t touch the South Pole until 1911. Australia ended up taking the name Aristotle had reserved for Antarctica since explorers thought that there couldn’t be anything further south of Australia once it was discovered. Once it was discovered and named Antarctica (Greek for “opposite of the north”), there were a few observations that were easily made.

Antarctica is Cold

In classic comedic fashion, you readers might shout, “How cold is it?!” And I would go on to say that it’s so cold that people pee on themselves to keep warm. According to the podcast How to Do Everything, researchers working at the base will sometimes pee into a jar and use it to keep themselves warm. Everything in your body is at about the same temperature, and so your urine is at about 98o F. If you dump it inside your parka, the jacket will keep it nice and insulated, and it will feel like a warm bath on your skin – albeit a little smelly.

Garb an Antarctic researcher might don.

Garb an Antarctic researcher might don.

To give raw numbers, the coldest natural temperature recorded on Earth was in Antarctica; -128.6o F. This is cold enough to make it snow CO2; you know, dry ice that you pack your meat with. If the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere was higher, there might have been a dry ice blizzard. Besides abnormal snowfalls, there are plenty of other good reasons why it’s important to be aware of the deadly cold.

Metals can form allotropes, which just is a fancy way of saying that at different temperatures, pressures, or compositions, the individual atoms rearrange themselves. Tin forms a new allotrope at 56o F, but it forms slowly unless the temperature drops below about -22o F. This allotrope is sometimes called tin pest because the metal crumbles into a powder. The doomed Scott expedition to the South Pole, which had hoped to become the first team to make it to the geographic landmark but were beat out a month earlier by a Norwegian team, might have suffered due to tin pest. Scott wrote in his diary shortly before he and his team perished in the frozen wasteland that there was “a shortage of fuel in our depots for which I cannot account”. The party had buried caches of food and fuel on their way in, storing them in cans soldered with tin, but there is controversy as to whether the loss of fuel was due to tin pest or just poor soldering.

Antarctica is Dry

Picture a desert. Images of dusty red rocks, prickly cacti, and unbearable heat that you can see shimmering off of long highway roads might be conjured, but a desert just refers to the amount of rainfall an environment receives. And with less than 8 inches of rain per year, Antarctica is a desert no matter how cold it gets. (For comparison, even in the major drought California is facing, some areas have seen more than 10 inches of rain this year already.)

While Antarctica might be dry, it isn’t dry in the Prohibition-era sense of the word. How to Do Everything reported that there were two bars at one of the Antarctica research base; basically right next door from one another. And since you can go days without a sunset, you could be leaving the bar at 2 AM with the sun shining brightly overhead. One bar in Antarctica, called Club 90 South in reference to the latitudinal coordinate, served cryogenic cocktails – liquid nitrogen-chilled drinks that the locals loved despite the already frigid temperatures surrounding them. I guess you still want a cold drink even after a long day of working in the cold.

Antarctica is High

A thick sheet of ice covers nearly the entire continent; about 98% of Antarctica is buried under 1+ miles of ice. The largest peak on the cold continent is Vinson Massif, which juts 16,050 feet into the air, the 8th highest mountain in the world. Active volcanos also protrude above the ice shelf, one having erupted as recent as 1970. Only 5% of the coast is rock, which may have discouraged some of the first explorers from trying to land. The uninhabitable highlands of Antarctica didn’t discourage some paranormal-lovers from creating some fantastical stories, though.

In the 1990s, some fisherman claimed to have seen white, blubbery, human-like creatures swimming near the surface. Ningen, as they were dubbed, is Japanese for human and refers to these albino blobs that love the frigid waters of Antarctica. The creatures are described as having arms (sometimes with five fingers on the end) that extend from a torso that ends with either a mermaid-esque tail or something more human-like. They have two huge dark eyes and a slit for a mouth. Strange photos of the alien creatures began popping up all over the internet in the early 2000s, but rather than being an intelligent sea-dwelling human counterpart as the conspiracy theorists claim, there is probably a rational explanation for these creatures. More reasonably (if they’re not completely made up), they could be giant, albino sting rays or another odd and uncommon creature.

Antarctica is Windy

Cape Denison isn’t called “Home of the Blizzard” for nothing. The headquarters for one of the early Antarctic expeditions sees average yearly wind speeds of 50 mph, peaking in June and July at an average of 75 mph. The winds get strong enough to easily turn immobile drums of diesel fuel into 350 lb. steamrollers as one account relayed. Explorers had to hold on to each other or risk being swept away, sliding endlessly on the slippery ice.

Cape Denison also contains Mawson’s Huts. An expedition led by geologist Sir Douglas Mawson saw the construction of the huts that still stand today as one of the few relics from an age of Antarctic exploration. Due to the high wind speeds, the huts were built by blasting deep into the bedrock and erecting walls and a pyramid roof that rose just above the ice. Today, the huts act as a reminder of the pioneers that first explored Antarctica with many of the walls eroded and the rooms filled with ice.

Despite no capital city, no permanent population, no government, and just ice all around, Antarctica is a pretty fascinating place – cold, dry, high, and windy but full of attention-grabbing facts.

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