Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, harshest continent, and with little precipitation (roughly 2 inches per year) is the driest place on earth. It is roughly 14 million sq km (5.4 million sq. mi.), has an average elevation of more than 2,000 m (6,500 ft.), and 98% of the landmass is covered by an ice sheet estimated to be 29 million cu km (7 million cu. mi.). It is surrounded by the Southern Ocean, which is considered to be an extension of the southern parts of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans.
The United States has three stations on the continent: McMurdo, Amundsen-Scott South Pole, and Palmer.
At McMurdo Station, which is the main U.S. station in Antarctica and 1,360 km (850 miles) north of the South Pole, the mean annual temperature is -18°C (0°F). Temperatures may reach 8°C (46°F) in the austral summer and -50°C (-58°F) in the austral winter. The average wind is 12 knots, but winds have exceeded 100 knots.
At an elevation of 2,835 meters (9,300 feet), South Pole Station has an average monthly temperature in the austral summer of -28°C (-18°F), and -60°C (-76°F) in the austral winter. The average wind speed is 10.8 knots.
Palmer Station, on the peninsula side, is milder with an average temperature range between 2°C (36°F) in the austral summer and -10°C (14°F) in the austral winter. The annual average wind is about 10 knots.
Temperature patterns vary so widely because the continent is covered in continuous darkness during the austral winter and continuous sunlight during the austral summer, with a few weeks of sunrises and sunsets in between seasons.
Plant life in Antarctica is limited, consisting of mostly algae, lichens, and mosses, and there are only a few known species of flowering plants. As far as animal life, only microscopic animals (such as mites and worms) and insects exist on the land; however, the Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is full of sea life, including phytoplankton, zooplankton, fish, squid, seals, whales, and seabirds.
Visit World Factbook to discover more information about this intriguing, isolated place, or view hundreds of photos in our Antarctic Photo Library .