Antarctica consists of two major regions: W Antarctica (c.2,500,000 sq mi/6,475,000 sq km), a mountainous archipelago that includes the Antarctic Peninsula, and E Antarctica (c.3,000,000 sq mi/7,770,000 sq km), geologically a continental shield. They are joined into a single continental mass by an ice sheet thousands of feet thick. At the seaward margins of the ice sheet masses of ice break off and float away as icebergs, leaving ice cliffs. Where the outward creep of the ice is channeled into ice streams (zones of more rapid flow), great floating ice tongues project into the sea; where mountains retard outward movement, the flow is channeled into great valley glaciers.
Less than 5% of Antarctica is free of ice; these areas include mountain peaks, arid "dry valleys," small coastal areas, and islands. Except for mountain ranges (some buried beneath the ice), much of E Antarctica's rock surface is near sea level; however, the continent's domed, snow-covered glacial surface rises to about 13,000 ft (4,000 m). In W Antarctica there is great variation in the subglacial relief, suggesting mountainous islands or submerged ranges separated by deep sounds beneath the ice cover. Since the 1970s more than 100 lakes of liquid water have been identified underneath the continental ice; the largest known of these is Lake Vostok, which lies 2.5 mi (4 km) beneath the Russian Vostok research station in E Antarctica. Many of the lakes are connected by subglacial rivers.
The two major coastal indentations are the Ross Sea, facing the Pacific Ocean, and the Weddell Sea, facing the Atlantic Ocean. At the head of each sea are great ice shelves, the Ross ice shelves in the Ross Sea and the Ronne and the Filchner ice shelves in the Weddell Sea. Partly aground but mostly afloat, these nearly level ice shelves are from 600 to 4,000 ft (180–1,220 m) thick. They move steadily toward the sea and are fed by valley glaciers, ice streams, and surface snow accumulations. Smaller ice shelves are found all along the coast.
The Transantarctic Mts (c.3,500–14,300 ft/1,100–4,400 m high), which extend from the east side of the Filchner Ice Shelf to the western portal of the Ross Sea, form the inner margin of E Antarctica. Primarily formed by block faulting (see mountains), the lower slopes have a complex structure of late Precambrian and early Paleozoic metamorphic rocks. These are overlaid by essentially horizontal sedimentary rock, mainly of continental or near-shore origin and ranging in age from the Devonian period to the early Jurassic, which are similar to rocks found in Australia, S Africa, and E South America; coal-bearing Permian strata are also found there. Distinctive plant, insect, fish, and animal fossils in the Triassic and Jurassic strata strongly indicate that the continents of the Southern Hemisphere are parts of an ancient supercontinent, Gondwanaland, which broke up in the late Mesozoic era. The continents have since drifted to their present positions.
The ice-drowned, mountainous archipelago of W Antarctica is related to the Andes Mts. of South America and is structurally connected to them by way of the Antarctic Peninsula and the Scotia Arc (South Georgia and the South Orkney and South Sandwich islands). The complex structure consists of highly folded metasedimentary strata from Paleozoic to Pliocene epochs. There has been much volcanism down to the present. Mountains of the Antarctic Peninsula rise to c.11,000 ft (3,350 m); the mountains of Marie Byrd Land have comparable heights. The Ellsworth Mts., at the head of Ronne Ice Shelf, are the highest in Antarctica; Vinson Massif (16,860 ft/5,140 m) is the continent's highest peak. A variety of mineral deposits have been discovered in Antarctica, but the extent of the deposits is largely unknown and their relative inaccessibility makes their utility doubtful.
Antarctica is surrounded by the world's stormiest seas. A belt of pack ice surrounds the continent; only a few areas are ice-free at the end of most summers. The physical boundary most widely accepted today for the antarctic region is the Antarctic Convergence, a zone c.25 mi (40 km) wide encircling the earth along a fluctuating, zigzagging line between 48°S and 61°S,. Within this zone the colder and denser north-flowing antarctic surface waters sink beneath warmer and saltier subantarctic waters; the difference in temperature and chemical content of the water on the two sides of the zone is reflected in noticeable differences in air temperature and in marine life. These differences and other characteristics have led oceanographers to regard the waters around Antarctica as a fifth ocean, the Southern Ocean (also known as the Antarctic Ocean).
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.