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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Air Date: Week of

This week, facts about Antarctica. One hundred eighty years ago, a young American seal hunter sighted land on this barren icy continent.


CURWOOD: One hundred and eighty years ago this week, Nathaniel Palmer discovered Antarctica. Well, sort of. The 20-year-old American seal hunter is credited with spotting actual land, in the form of mountains, while others had spied only ice. Only a tiny percentage of Antarctica's land mass is visible. Most of the continent is covered by ice, with an average thickness of a mile and a half. If this ice sheet melted, the world's oceans would rise by about 200 feet. Ironically, all this fresh water is locked up on a desert continent, where less than two inches of precipitation fall each year, mostly as snow or ice. After all, the warmest summer temperatures on the continent barely top the freezing point. The coldest recorded temperature on Earth is minus 129 degrees Fahrenheit, measured at Antarctica's Vostok Station. And that doesn't even take wind chill into account. The only people who live on his inhospitable land are science researchers, but there are plenty of other species. Algae, lichen, and moss grow there, and insects and sea birds thrive. Most animals are concentrated on the coast. In the Antarctic Ocean, you'll find creatures including krill, fish, whales, and the seals that Nathaniel Palmer sailed in search of. To survive extreme climate conditions, these animals involved intriguing defenses. Consider the Antarctic cod. It can produce a natural form of antifreeze in its blood, which keeps body fluids flowing even in frigid waters. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.



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