The freezing, inhospitable continent of Antarctica was the last place on Earth to be explored. It is a vast, mountainous land mass at the South Pole, buried under an ice sheet up to 3 miles (4.8 km) thick, and surrounded by frozen seas. Antarctica has no countries and no permanent population. With winter temperatures falling to –122°F (–80°C), its sole inhabitants are visiting research scientists.
Antarctica does not belong to any nation, but is governed under an international treaty that bars countries from owning or exploiting its land. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty, signed by 45 nations, suspended the claims of seven countries for territory in the region. Today, Antarctica is designated as “a continent for science,” and only used for peaceful purposes.
Scientists from all over the world visit Antarctica to study the climate, weather, geology, and wildlife of this unique region. Their research has helped to highlight global problems, such as climate change. During the summer, about 3,700 scientists work in the 46 or more scientific research stations scattered across the continent. Only about 1,200 scientists remain in winter because of the intense cold.
Total land area: 5.4 million sq miles (14 million sq km)
Total population: no indigenous inhabitants, but there are seasonally staffed research stations
Number of countries: 0
Highest point: Vinson Massif 16,066 ft (4,897 m)
Major deserts: the continent is technically a desert
Largest island: Alexander Island
Lowest temperature on Earth: –128.6°F (–89.2°C) recorded at Vostok Station
The Arctic region lies at the North Pole. It is a small, frozen ocean surrounded by the northern edges of Europe, Asia, and North America, whose flat, bleak landscape is known as the tundra. The region is a cold and hostile environment and few people live there. The Arctic Ocean, however, teems with wildlife.
The Arctic Ocean is home to seals, walruses, and many species of whales, which thrive in the icy waters, protected by thick layers of blubber. In the warmer summer months, animals such as reindeer, musk oxen, hares, and Arctic foxes hunt for food on land, but they migrate south during the harsh winter.