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Antarctica is the southernmost continent on Earth.  It lies in the southern hemisphere and is completely surrounded by the Southern Ocean.  Antarctica is the highest, driest, coldest, windiest and emptiest place on earth.  An ice sheet covers approximately 98% of the continent.  Antarctica is approximately 14 million km2 (5.4 million mi2) in size, and is the world’s fifth-largest continent.  For comparison, New Zealand is only 279,000 km2, and the United States is only 9.8 million km2. 

Comparing the size of Antarctica to the USA, New Zealand and Australia. (sources: www.usap.gov and aadc-maps.aad.gov.au)

The average temperature at the South Pole is -49 °C (-56 °F ), but temperatures at McMurdo Station (where we are located) may reach as high as 10 °C (50 °F) during the summer. Only cold-tolerant organisms can survive in and around Antarctica.  Although there is little plant or animal life on the Antarctic continent, marine animals are abundant along the Antarctic coast, including penguins and fur seals.   

There are no permanent residents in Antarctica, but a number of countries maintain research stations on the continent

Our project works at two of the United State's three Antarctic bases. These are McMurdo Station and Palmer Station.

McMurdo Station

McMurdo Station is the largest of the USA's three Antarctic bases and is located on Ross Island. In the summertime, the population of McMurdo Station reaches almost 1200 people, while in the wintertime, the population dwindles to around 150 people.    McMurdo comprises approximately 85 buildings (including dormitories, a firehouse, power plant, water distillation plant, and research buildings), a harbor, airplane ice landing strips, and a helicopter pad.  McMurdo Station is 7 km from New Zealand's Scott Base. Scott Base is New Zealand's' main base and supports approximately 100 people in the summertime and 40 in the winter.

At the time we are in Antarctica, Ross Island is surrounded by ice.  The thinnest ice that is close to the station is around 5 metres thick.  It is thick enough to land the C-130 Hercules and C-17 planes we arrive on.  Toward the end of our stay (in mid December), the ice surface deteriorates because of summer melting and the planes are forced to land on the permanent Ross Ice Shelf.  The Ross Ice Shelf is hundreds of metres thick.

Map of Ross Island

Palmer Station

Palmer Station is much smaller than McMurdo Station and holds only 44 people at at time. It is located on Anvers Island which is on the west side of the Antarctic Peninsula. When we are at Palmer Station in April and May which is late fall in the southern hemisphere the temperature is typically around 0 °C (32 °F). To get to Palmer Station you have to take a ship from Punta Arenas, Chile and the trip can take 4-5 days. A good map showing the location of Palmer Station can be found here.