Wny Adventure Travelers Need to Know More ... About Antarctica

By: Mandy Karlik
Technically, the continent of Antarctica was not officially discovered until the year 1820. However, it was not exactly unknown. Before that, it had been "contemplated" by ancient cultures who sort of surmised that there had to be land at the extreme southernmost end of the world.

Some ancient cultures figured it had to exist as a way of balancing the weight of Europe and Africa. The ancient Greeks, who knew about the Arctic or North Pole, speculated there had to be an anti-North Pole or anti-Arctic. In fact, they gave Antarctica its name.

Famed explorer Captain Cook, better known for his more temperate discoveries in the South Pacific and Hawaii, almost discovered Antarctica when he cruised within miles of it but never actually sighted land (or knew what was there).

It was not until 1820 that Antarctica was actually sighted and a few more years later until anyone managed to set foot on the continent. The actual discoverer of Antarctica remains somewhat in dispute, but suffice it to say that they were more interested in the fur trade than scientific exploration.

Fur seals were a powerful lure to bring hardy trappers to the harshest climate on earth. These greedy hunters almost drove the fur seals to extinction, but not before the Antarctic climate caused a few of the fur traders to become extinct themselves.

The continent today is a land of superlatives. It's not just the coldest place on earth (colder by far than the North Pole). It's also the driest (which is paradoxical since it contains 90 percent of the earth's ice), the windiest, and the highest (in terms of average elevation).

Antarctica receives so little average annual precipitation that its stark interior qualifies as the world's largest desert. It also has active volcanoes, several species of indigenous plants and animals, and a near-permanent settlement of temporary residents, mainly conducting scientific research.

Today, it's also a vacation destination. True, it's not a typical vacation spot. Few people relax by going to the harshest, most extreme climate zone on earth. But for adventure travelers, it is a great place to visit.

Commercial cruise lines run regular, if only occasional, tours there and cruising Antarctica is a great way to see it. However, even the most stalwart adventure traveler has to make concessions for the Antarctic.

For one thing, it's daylight all of the time or not at all, depending on the season. Second, sunburn can be as much of a problem as frostbite since the glare from the ice and snow makes going outside treacherous. Eye protection is an absolute necessity since snow blindness can permanently damage the eyes. With high winds and frequent storms, air travel is dicey at best.

Planes can and do fly around the region, but schedules are almost impossible since everything is contingent on the weather.

Technically, the permanent population of Antarctica is zero, but there is actually a near permanent settlement of people who come to Antarctica on a temporary basis to live, study, work, conduct research, or even just play tourist. Recently, Ann Curry of the Today Show visited the South Pole as such a visitor.

The facilities for residents are limited at best, but growing. Today, there are even a few people who can actually claim to have been born in Antarctica.

The future of Antarctica is guarded zealously by a group of nations who signed a treaty to protect this last continent from all forms of exploitation. Scientific research is permitted, even encouraged, but it must be done in ways that do little damage to the delicate ecosystem of this harsh region.
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