Antarctica is with about 14.2 million square km fifth in size among the world’s continents and if it were a country, it would be the world’s second largest. A vast ice sheet covers the continent almost completely. Antarctica is divided by the 2900km long Trans Antarctic Mountains into East and West Antarctica, whereby the eastern part a high, ice-covered plateau, is much bigger and consists of mountainous islands covered and fused together by ice.
Antarctica is the most isolated continent, the driest, and the highest, with an average height of 2250m, and the highest point of 4897m. Being more than 98% ice covered, it contains 90 % of the world’s ice and nearly 70% of the world’s fresh water. The ice is up to 4775m thick.
The main part of the continent is almost round with a diameter of about 4500km and a Peninsula, stretching towards Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego. The Antarctic Peninsula separates the Wendell and Ross Seas. The coastline is 30,400km long. By September, late winter in Antarctica, the ice extends the size of the continent to over 1000km from the original coastline.
Antarctica is often considered to be the last paradise on Earth. Being also called wilderness, it is impressive how close the wildlife can be regarded without (obviously) being scared. However, the interest of humans in Antarctica has also brought problems and threats with it. Threats to the environment to Antarctica are amongst others fishing, tourism and scientific research.
Nowadays, the primary economic activity in Antarctica is fishing. The exploitation of marine life started in the nineteenth century already. It begun with the catching of seals, then continued with whaling in the twentieth century until some species were close to extinction. Following this, the exploitation continued with fish and when it was no longer economically worthwhile to catch them due to over fishing, the interest changed to krill. Mineral mining has long been discussed but finally not been allowed. A variety of minerals have been found but were neither in large quantities to exploit, nor would that be environmentally justifiable.
Moreover, there has always been a scientific interest bringing researchers to the continent. While the research is of high importance it is still not without impact to the environment and the species of the continent.
Tourism has first started in1957 and is self regulated by the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators. Cruises are done by small or medium sized ships, exploring the scenic locations with possibities to watch wildlife. The number of tourists visiting Antarctica is increasing enormously and nowadays the number of tourists visiting Antarctica exceeds the number of scientists and their supporting personnel almost by ten times. Some impacts of the tourists are obvious and since tourists visit places with lots of wildlife, the risk on plants and species increases. An example of an impact is a footprint in a moss bed, which does not recover earlier than after a decade or even two. And of course the impact on animals which can be there, even when they do not show it immediately in their behavior. So was it found that the heartbeat of Adelie Penguins increased when a human is even 30 meters away from them, even though they do not show their annoyance obviously.
Antarctica does not have indigenous people and no permanent residents because of its extreme conditions. Non-permanent residents are researchers and their staff in scientific bases, which are around 4.000 in summer and 1.000 in winter.
No local government exists due to the lack of indigenous inhabitants. The Antarctic Treaty of 1959, which forty-three nations have signed, manages the continent. While some countries have an historic claim on parts of Antarctica, these have not been recognized.