The Antarctic Peninsula is known for being one of the richest breeding grounds for penguins, seals, and seabirds in Antarctica. It is the warmest region of the continent, and so is a favored location for many research stations. Its warmer climate also makes it an ideal place to visit for tourists hoping to experience a piece of Antarctica. The Peninsula is made up of several islands worth stopping at, each with its own unique features.
Antarctica's Changing Ice Shelf
The Larsen Ice Shelf of the Antarctic Peninsula was subject to an event that alarmed many scientists with regards to climate change. This ice shelf used to be made up of three separate shelves, called Larsen A (smallest), Larsen B, and Larsen C (biggest). Ice shelves are typically known to break up due to melting on the upper and lower surfaces and by iceberg calving. The Larsen shelves disintegrated into the sea at much faster rates than have been recorded.
Larsen B shelf disintegrated between January 31 and March 7 of 2002. Warm currents ate away at the underside of its shelf, and a Rhode Island-size piece of its mass broke off in just three days, the speed of which astonished glacier scientists. The shelf was 3,250 square kilometers and 200 meters thick.
Although global warming is held responsible for the quick disintegration of Larsen B, temperatures in interior Antarctica have actually been falling. Some evidence also shows that on the opposite side of the Peninsula from Larsen, the retreat of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has halted.
The Many Names of the Antarctic Peninsula
The Antarctic Peninsula was discovered and frequented by sealers and whalers long before any officially documented discovery. It was thought to be part of the continent of Antarctica, and then to be a grouping of islands. The northwest corner of the region was mapped in 1820 by the British navigator James Bransfield, and John Rymill's expedition from 1934-37 proved its status as a peninsula. It was fist named the Palmer Peninsula for U.S. captain Nathaniel Palmer who also explored the region in 1820.
Britain claimed the peninsula in 1840 and dubbed it Graham Land and Trinity Peninsula. In 1940, Argentina claimed it for its own and called it San Martin Land. Barely two years later, Chile threw in its claim and named it O'Higgins Land.
Finally, in 1964, an international agreement renamed the region the Antarctic Peninsula. However, each country with a previous claim still uses its own name locally. It is now the site of several research stations run by different countries.
The Hearty Antarctic Wildlife
One of the best features of an Antarctic cruise is the opportunity to whale-watch from the decks of the vessel while cruising toward the continent. Travelers should be on the lookout for the gigantic humpback and sperm whales, as well as smaller minke, right, and fin whales. The very lucky may catch a glimpse of the elusive and incredible blue whale, the largest animal on earth.
Seals are prolific on the Antarctic Peninsula, the most impressive being the elephant seal with huge nose and formidable size. Crabeater seals, fur seals, and leopard seals are also common sights.
But far and away, penguins are the creatures that have made Antarctica famous. The majestic emperor penguin, which achieved fame in the movie March of the Penguins, and its cousin the king penguin roam the ice in stately dignity. The comic rockhopper, royal, and macaroni penguins with colorful flares of feathers on their head are hard to miss on the white landscape. The classic Adelie penguin is also in abundance, the arch typical black and white penguin that comes to mind when travelers think of the penguin family.
While penguins are relegated to the icy ground, several species of Albatross criss-cross the skies. Even more species of petrels call the Antarctic skies home, as do many gulls and terns. An Antarctic cruise will reveal the true abundance of wildlife in the frigid region!
Weather on the Peninsula
An Antarctic Peninsula cruise will feature the best weather in Antarctica. It extends farther north than the rest of the continent, and so temperatures are much milder. It is common to experience temperatures above freezing. The only downside is that this warmer weather makes it wetter than the rest of Antarctica; rain is as common as snow. However, since Antarctica is one of the driest places on earth, the changes of precipitation are still slim. Severe winds can also batter this part of Antarctica.
Exploring Unique Geography in Antarctica
The Antarctic Peninsula makes up the northernmost part of the mainland of Antarctica. It extends out past the Antarctic Circle, the only landmass of Antarctica to do so. It is bordered on one side by the Weddell Sea, and on the other by the Southern Ocean on the other. It extends out toward Argentina and Chile.
The Peninsula is characterized by mountain ranges, the highest of which reaches to over 9,000 feet. These mountains are actually an extension of the South American range of the Andes; they are connected beneath the ocean by a submarine spine.
The Peninsula’s glaciers flow into the Larsen Ice Shelf, which is an ice fringe on the northwest tip that has come under international spotlight since a portion of it broke away in record time in 2002.
There is a plethora of beautiful islands to visit along the Peninsula. Hope Bay is famous for its huge rookery Adelie penguins; there are over 124,000 breeding pairs. Hope Bay also hosts several research stations; in fact, tourists frequently visit the Argentine Esperanza Station, which feels like a small village in the middle of the ice. The Lemaire Channel is a steep-sided channel that runs between the Peninsula and the Booth Island mountains, and is so incredibly beautiful that it is often called “Kodak Gap” for the frequency with which it has been photographed.