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As German filmmaker Werner Herzog portrayed in his 2007 documentary Encounters at the End of the World, over the years Antarctica has enticed thousands of adventurers to explore its inhospitable geography – a surreal realm of extremes so great they cannot be understood until they are experienced.

They visit in an effort to grasp how this strange, harsh place, where unruly blizzards and -50C temperatures are the norm, can sustain a vital ecosystem. And their voyages help the rest of the world understand how the frozen continent of Antarctica works.

The first commercial tours to Antarctica date back to the 1950s, but tourism really took off with the formation of the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators in 1991, after which numbers rose from a few thousand visitors each year to tens of thousands of annual tourists, reaching about 34,000 visitors in 2011. Many of them come on cruise ships, often passing through Chile or Argentina first, but there are also more than a dozen research stations on the continent, the largest being the McMurdo Station in the south, which can support more than a thousand people.

Ice covers 99.5% of Antarctica, a place known for being the coldest, driest, windiest and highest continent on Earth. As such, it’s considered the largest desert on the planet, and is also home to the world’s third deepest lake, the subglacial Lake Vostok; several volcanoes including the highly active Mount Erebus; and the South Pole.

About 14 million years ago, a period of climate change caused the formation of the Antarctic ice sheet, which averages one mile in thickness and gets up to three miles thick in some parts. Before this, scientists believe, Antarctica looked more like Alaska or the Alps, consisting of a range of glacier-capped mountains. Today, the ice sheet provides habitat for many species of seabirds, seals and penguins.

Antarctica’s waters are home to a thriving ecosystem driven by phytoplankton -- microscopic plant-like organisms that grow rapidly during the summer months of near-constant sunlight. Krill (crustaceans resembling prawns) subsist on phytoplankton and are in turn eaten by fish, squid, jellyfish, seabirds, penguins, seals, whales and other animals. Penguins, seals, birds and whales also eat fish and sometimes jellyfish; leopard seals will additionally eat penguins and other seals; and orca whales will additionally eat penguins, seals and smaller whales.

New species are being discovered in Antarctica all the time. This year, for instance, scientists discovered deep-sea hot springs (or “hydrothermal vents”) which opened up a world of never-before-seen wildlife, including a new type of fuzzy and colourless Yeti crab, a still unnamed colourless octopus  and a carnivorous seven-legged sea star, all of which live in complete darkness 2,400m underwater.

But the Antarctic Peninsula is also one of the most rapidly warming regions on the planet, and as a result, has attracted close study by climate scientists. As the British Antarctic Survey organisation explained, while the “global significance of the Antarctic Peninsula warming is difficult to assess, the main concern is for the loss of a unique landscape and biota.”

Practicalities
Tourists only visit Antarctica during the summer months of November through March, and even then temperatures don’t typically rise above 2C. The weeks around Christmas, however, yield a period of 24-hour sunlight. The most common way to get to Antarctica is by ship -- on a group tour or as part of a cruise -- and there are a number of sea and air operators offering trips to the frozen continent. Most flights leave from Punta Arenas, Chile, and most boat trips leave from Ushuaia, Argentina.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

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