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How was Antarctica formed?

Posted by admin on July 4, 2017

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When one pictures Antarctica, one imagines a white, icy landscape. Right? But according to the history of Antarctica, it wasn’t always like this. At Grayline Argentina, we regularly travel to the world’s southern-most continent on our Antarctic expedition cruises and it is always fascinating to look out at this beautiful, pristine and dramatic landscape and think about how Antarctica was formed. Let’s take a look back in time: 

Continental drift

Alfred Lothar Wegener was a German polar researcher. He developed the theory of continental drift, which is the concept that a number of continents drifted into each other around 1 billion years ago and formed a huge area of land called Pangaea. His theory played a role in answering the question: how was Antarctica formed?

According to continental drift theory, present day Antarctica was in the southern part of this landmass – a region called Gondwana.

It is thought Gondwana was made up of most of the landmasses in the southern hemisphere - Antarctica, South America, Africa, India and Australia. Fossil evidence shows that they shared the same plant and animal life. The idea that the east coast of South America ‘fits’ with the west coast of Africa, and the two areas have matching rock formations and mountain chains also supported his theory.

Continental separation

Then around 184 million years ago, in the early Jurassic period – Gondwana began to separate with present day Antarctica, India and Australia splitting with Africa and South America.

Then South America drifted slowly from Africa and the South Atlantic Ocean opened up around 130 million years ago. India then began to move north 10 million years later.

In the late Cretaceous period, Antarctica, New Zealand and Australia split, leaving Antarctica on its own in the south. This was a huge milestone in the history of Antarctica and brings us one step closer to understanding the Antarctica we know today and indeed how Antarctica was formed. 

Ice formation

In addition to once being a completely different size and shape of continent, Antarctica did not always have an icy and extreme landscape. Instead, around 35 million years ago, it resembled an Alpine wilderness instead of an Antarctic one.

Radar surveys in the early 2000s by a Chinese team of researchers showed topography much like the European Alps lay beneath the ice.

What we know about the history of Antarctica shows us that small mountain top glaciers formed on these mountains around 24 million years ago. They froze and then receded and flowed in line with changes in the earth’s orbit. As they did so they carved out valleys, changing the topography, which in turn influenced how ice in the area would flow. Then, around 14 million years ago, temperatures dropped by 8 degrees across the world and in Antarctica this began the process of the ice freezing to the rocks.  And now, Antarctica’s ice is 1.6km deep and unsurprisingly, is the largest area of ice in the world. The Antarctic ice cap holds 90% of the ice on the planet and between 60 and 70% of the world’s fresh water.

At Grayline Argentina, we are experts in Arctic and Antarctic expedition cruises – the ultimate choice in travel to Antarctica. We have a number ofAntarctic cruises on which you can explore this beautiful and unique continent and our on board experts will tell you all about how this fascinating part of our world was formed.  Our expert guides will accompany you throughout our expeditions to Antarctica.  Get in touch or visit Grayline Argentina to see if we can meet your travel needs – our advice is independent and expert and we have individually tested every trip we offer.


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