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Antarctica Introduction
    2007-11-14 11:11:32     encarta.msn.com
Antarctica, fifth largest of the Earth's seven continents. The southernmost, coldest, windiest, highest, most remote, and most recently discovered continent, it surrounds the South Pole, the point at the southern end of the Earth's axis. Almost completely covered by ice, Antarctica has no permanent human population. The continent is ringed by the Southern Ocean. The entire area south of the Antarctic Convergence, which serves as the northern boundary of the Southern Ocean, is referred to as the Antarctic region. Antarctica means "opposite to the Arctic," the Earth's northernmost region.

The continent is shaped somewhat like a comma, with a round body surrounding the pole and a tail curving toward South America. The round portion, lying mainly in the Eastern Hemisphere, makes up East Antarctica. The tail and its thickened base, located entirely in the Western Hemisphere, form West Antarctica. Antarctica lies 1,000 km (600 mi) from South America, its nearest neighbor; 4,000 km (2,500 mi) from Africa; and 2,500 km (1,600 mi) from Australia. Antarctica's latitude (location in relation to the equator) and high elevations make it the coldest continent. Air temperatures of the high inland regions fall below -80C (-110F) in winter and rise only to -30C (-20F) in summer. The warmest coastal regions reach the freezing point in summer but drop well below in winter.

The last continent to be discovered, Antarctica remained hidden behind barriers of fog, storm, and sea ice until it was first sighted in the early 19th century. Because of the extreme cold and the lack of native peoples, forests, land animals, and obvious natural resources, the continent remained largely neglected for decades after discovery. Scientific expeditions and seal hunters had explored only fragments of its coasts by the end of the 19th century, while the interior remained unknown. Explorers first reached the South Pole in 1911, and the first permanent settlements-scientific stations-were established in the early 1940s. From that time the pace of exploration accelerated rapidly. Scientists continue to conduct research in Antarctica, and in recent years increasing numbers of tourists have visited Antarctica to appreciate the region's majestic scenery and wildlife.

Seven nations-Argentina, Australia, the United Kingdom, Chile, France, New Zealand, and Norway-claim territory in Antarctica. Other nations, including the United States and Russia, do not acknowledge these claims and make no claims of their own, but reserve rights to claim territory in the future. Since 1961 the continent has been administered under the Antarctic Treaty, an international agreement to preserve the continent for peaceful scientific study.
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