Antarctica, the ice-locked landmass around the South Pole. The name means "opposite the Bear" (the northern constellation), or "opposite the Arctic." It is the most remote and desolate of all the continents. Serious exploration of Antarctica did not begin until the end of the 19th century. Today this vast inhospitable area of bitter winds and cold is the temporary home of thousands of scientists from many countries.
Including its permanent ice, Antarctica has an area of about 5,500,000 square miles (14,250,000 km2). Almost all of this roughly circular continent is covered by an immense polar ice cap, larger than the United States, Mexico, and Central America combined. Antarctica's greatest extent is about 3,500 miles (5,630 km), from the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula to the coast of Wilkes Land. The distance from the front of the Ross Ice Shelf across to the Princess Astrid Coast is 2,200 miles (3,540 km).
Surrounding Antarctica are the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian oceans, whose southernmost waters are sometimes called the Antarctic Ocean. The coast is deeply indented by the Ross Sea, which opens onto the Pacific, and by the Weddell Sea, which opens onto the Atlantic.
In Antarctica is the South Pole, the earth's southernmost point. It lies far inland at an elevation of 9,200 feet (2,800 m) and is the site of the Amundsen-Scott Station, a United States scientific base. Off the coast of Wilkes Land, nearly 1,700 miles (2,740 km) from the South Pole, is the south magnetic pole. Also in Antarctica, near Russia's Vostok base about halfway between these two poles, is the south geomagnetic pole.
The Antarctic sky is sometimes lighted by magnificent displays of the Aurora Australis, or Southern Lights.