In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Antarctic Environments and Ecology

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Textbooks
  • Journals
  • Human Impacts, Conservation, and Management

Ecology Antarctic Environments and Ecology
Roberto Bargagli
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2021
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 October 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199830060-0022


Greek philosophers suggested the existence of a southern landmass (Antarktikos) to “balance” the weight of lands known to exist in the Northern Hemisphere (under the constellation of Arktos). The existence of the continent remained a matter of speculation for a long time, and even Captain James Cook (b. 1728–d. 1779), who crossed the Antarctic Circle in January 1773, failed to see the Terra Australis Incognita. At last, the reports from the “heroic era” expeditions (1895–1915) convinced most geographers that the scattered landfalls marked the edge of a continent. With the advent of aircrafts, through the US Navy Operation “Highjump” (1946–1947) and the International Geophysical Year (1957–1958), the continent was thoroughly mapped. Over the last five decades, international cooperation in research and logistics, within the framework of the Antarctic Treaty and the Special Committee on Antarctic Research (SCAR) coordination, has greatly increased our knowledge of Antarctica. The continent covers an area of 14 million km2 (about 10 percent of the land surface of the Earth) and, apart from the northern part of Antarctic Peninsula, lies south of the Antarctic Circle. The land rises rapidly away from the coast, and Antarctica has the highest mean elevation (2,200 m) of any continent on Earth. The weight of the massive ice sheet depresses Antarctica, and its continental shelf is unusually deep (up to 800 m). Although distance and atmospheric and ocean circulation isolate the continent from the rest of the world, Antarctica is inextricably linked to global processes, and the Southern Ocean plays a prominent role in the sequestration of carbon and the transport of nutrients throughout the world’s oceans. The extreme environment (temperature down to –89.2°C at Vostok Station, wind speed up to 327 km/h; mean precipitation 166 m) is a natural laboratory for studying organism evolutionary adaptations and for reconstructing Earth’s paleoclimate. The elevation of the continent, combined with the dry and clean atmosphere, allows unique astronomical observations and investigations of Earth’s magnetosphere and ionosphere. Scientific research is the main reason for human presence in Antarctica and is contributing to a better understanding of the functioning of Earth’s system. The general public, impressed by the accounts of early explorers and television programs, perceives Antarctica as remote and hostile, inhabited only by penguins and seals. For many environmentally conscious people, however, this place is a global conservation symbol and, one hopes, is raising sufficient awareness and concern among the new generations to replace the old view of it as a hostile and useless environment.

General Overviews

Antarctica is composed of two major distinct blocks (East Antarctica and West Antarctica) bridged by a vast ice sheet. The review by Talarico and Kleinschmidt 2009 and papers in Fütterer, et al. 2006 on geological evolution of the continent and the Southern Ocean are useful to understand present-day Antarctic environments and ecosystems. Ingólfsson 2004 provides an accessible chapter on glacial and climate history of Antarctica, and King and Turner 1997 a comprehensive survey of Antarctic meteorology and climatology. Clarke 2003 introduces historical processes that have driven the evolution of Antarctic organisms. Convey, et al. 2009 explores novel biological constraints for reconstructing this history. Stonehouse 2002 provides an easily accessible overview of Antarctic explorations, geology, geography, and the other scientific disciplines. Turner, et al. 2009 is an up-to-date account of how the physical and biological history of Antarctica changed in the past and may change in the next century.

  • Clarke, Andrew. 2003. Evolution, adaptation and diversity: Global ecology in an Antarctic context. In Antarctic biology in a global context: Proceedings of the VIIIth SCAR international biology symposium, 27 August–1 September 2001. Edited by Ad H. L. Huiskes, Winfried W. C Gieskes, Jelte Rozema, Raymond M. L. Schorno, Saskia M. van der Vies, and Wim J. Wolff, 3–17. Leiden, The Netherlands: Backhuys.

    Article that emphasizes how the tectonic evolution of Gondwana has dictated which organisms are currently found in Antarctica and how the glacial history has driven both evolution and extinctions. This knowledge may help to predict what may happen in the face of future climate change.

  • Convey, Peter, Mark I. Stevens, Dominic A. Hodgson, et al. 2009. Exploring biological constraints on the glacial history of Antarctica. Quaternary Science Reviews 28:3035–3048.

    DOI: 10.1016/j.quascirev.2009.08.015

    Although most glaciological models and geomorphological field data suggest that ice covered most terrestrial habitats during the last glacial period and/or previous glacial maxima, new evolutionary and biogeographic data suggest the persistence of Antarctic biota through multiple glacial cycles. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Fütterer, Dieter K., Detlef Damaske, Georg Kleinschmidt, Hubert Miller, and Franz Tessensohn, eds. 2006. Antarctica: Contribution to global earth science. Berlin: Springer.

    Sixty articles from speakers at the IX International Symposium of Antarctic Earth Sciences, arranged in eight thematic sections and highlighting the results of geophysical, geological, and sedimentological research in the continent and the Southern Ocean. The book offers a historical perspective of research activities in Antarctica and emphasizes the connection between Antarctica and the surrounding continents by comparing the continent’s scarce outcrops with those of the better-exposed parts of Gondwana.

  • Ingólfsson, Ólafur. 2004. Quaternary glacial and climate history of Antarctica. In Quaternary glaciations: Extent and chronology, part III; South America, Asia, Africa, Australasia, Antarctica. Edited by Jürgen Ehlers and Philip L. Gibbard, 3–43. Developments in Quaternary Science 2. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1571-0866(04)80109-X

    A broad survey of the Quaternary history of the Antarctic ice sheet and its role in driving eustasy, deep-ocean circulation, and the global climate.

  • King, John C., and John Turner. 1997. Antarctic meteorology and climatology. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511524967

    A classic, accessible book on the topic.

  • Stonehouse, Bernard, ed. 2002. Encyclopedia of Antarctica and the Southern Oceans. Chichester, UK: Wiley.

    Wide-ranging collection of twenty-five contributions, written under the direction of six advisory editors and providing a readily accessible cross-disciplinary coverage of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean.

  • Talarico, Franco M., and Georg Kleinschmidt. 2009. The Antarctic continent in Gondwanaland: A tectonic review and potential research targets for future investigations. Development in Earth and Environmental Sciences 8:257–308.

    DOI: 10.1016/S1571-9197(08)00007-4

    A thorough and comprehensive review of geologic evolution and paleoclimate of the Antarctic continent, with a discussion on aspects not completely investigated or under debate. Available online for purchase or by subscription.

  • Turner, John, Robert Bindschadler, Pete Convey, et al., eds. 2009. Antarctic climate change and the environment: A contribution to the International Polar Year 2007–2008. Cambridge, UK: Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research.

    One hundred experts in Antarctic science have contributed to this highly cross-disciplinary volume published by SCAR (Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research). It is suitable for graduate students and is an important resource for researchers interested in the role of Antarctica in global issues such as carbon uptake by oceans, sea-level rise, biodiversity, or the separation of natural climate variability from anthropogenic influences.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.