The Arctic Vs. Antarctica
RiAus Director Paul Willis is heading down to Antarctica to take photos for you! Submit a photo option in the sidebar (under Samantha’s bio) and see the list of submissions already made at The Great Antarctic Photo Quest
One of them has penguins and Santa Claus is listed at the other, but which is which? The easiest way to remember is the Arctic has fewer letters, so floats to the top (the north pole) whilst the Antarctic has more letters, therefore is heavier and sinks to the bottom (the south pole). But beyond the spelling and the locals what is the difference between the two?
Geography and Oceanography
The arctic is roughly divided into two regions – the Arctic Circle (subarctic) and the poetically named land of the midnight sun and polar nights to the north. The Arctic Circle includes parts of several countries (USA, Canada, Greenland, Iceland, Lapland, Norway and Russia) surrounding the Arctic Ocean and is viewed as an ocean with eight states. The North Pole lies directly in the middle of this ocean. The land of the midnight sun is so called due to its unique position that results in it spending half of the year in direct sunlight and the other half facing away from the sun. The temperatures of the Arctic range from a nippy -30°C in winter to 0°C in the summer.
The Antarctic on the other hand, is a single continent covered completely in ice. This land mass is surrounded by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the largest current in the world, allowing little circulation from other waters and keeping the temperatures low enough to maintain its icy beauty. The Antarctic is the coldest place on earth, much colder than its counterpart in the north, ranging from -68°C (inland) in winter to a balmy 10°C in summer.
So they are both icy, what are the differences for science and research?
Although they seem similar the Arctic and Antarctic provide vastly different environments for research. The Arctic Circle has one of the most amazing and delicate environments on earth. Humans have impacted parts of the Arctic region for centuries, from the indigenous locals to explorers from the south. Due to its delicate nature the Arctic is one of the most important places for studying climate change and the environmental impact of human activity on our planet. Collaborative research between the Arctic nations and others is governed by such groups as the International Arctic Science Committee (IASC) and the Arctic Council (overseeing issues related to the Arctic Governments and Indigenous peoples). Current research areas highlighted by the IASC include; coastal biodiversity and dynamics, hydrology, environmental data gathering, human-caribou grazing systems, glaciology and effects of Arctic environmental contaminants on human health.
The Antarctic on the other hand does not belong to anyone. It is the last truly wild place on earth and has never been inhabited by humans – inhabited here meaning large cities and farms and destruction of the wild environment. Humanity first discovered Antarctica in the early 20th century and in order to preserve the area the Antarctic Treaty was formed in 1959. This treaty states that it is in “the interests of all mankind that Antarctica shall continue forever to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes and shall not become the scene or object of international discord”. Research in Antarctica covers many fields including biology, environmental science, marine biology, earth science, geophysics, astronomy and astrophysics. In fact it is considered the best place on earth for astronomy, as the stars are most easily visible from the South Pole region!
Research stations in the Antarctic are staffed by scientists from around the globe, built on solid rock or ice with some less permanent camps arising in the summer for specific projects. The region has no plants or land animals, meaning all supplies must be brought with the research group, and all trash must be removed as well. Antarctica is not only the coldest but also the windiest place on earth, which, coupled with the complete isolation, can be difficult for the dedicated scientists working there.
In the Arctic region however research is often conducted from ships or floating stations, or is conducted from universities or research centres located in one of the countries of the region. There is plenty of wildlife (including polar bears!) and even some plant life, making life a researcher in the Arctic slightly more comfortable – but only slightly.
One more quick fact…OK maybe two…
The South Pole does not line up directly with the North Pole. The Earth’s magnetic field is not quite symmetrical so tunnelling through the centre of the earth would not be the fastest way to get from one pole to the other.
The North Pole changes position due to changes in the Earth’s core – explaining why Santa Claus’s workshop has never been found!