THE LAST DESERT (ANTARCTICA) 2020: LOCATION, WEATHER & CULTURE
Antarctica is the largest desert in the world, and it is often referred to as the "White Desert." The Last Desert is the only multi-stage race on the Antarctic continent. It is held around the Antarctic Peninsula, with a remarkable history of early polar exploration and whaling. The scenery of icebergs, mountains, research bases and incredible wildlife are unparalleled anywhere else on the Antarctic continent.
The Last Desert explores the pristine scenery of snow, ice, mountains and waterways and wide variety of wildlife including penguins, birds, whales and seals.
Antarctica is its own continent. It contains the geographic South Pole and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean.
The Last Desert starts from Ushuaia, at the very southern tip of Argentina. Competitors board an expedition ship that serves as both a home and base camp for the duration of the race.
After a two-day voyage across the notorious Drake Passage, the first sightings of icebergs and snow-capped mountains indicate that competitors have reached Antarctica.
Weather permitting, The Last Desert takes place in up to six locations in and around the Antarctic Peninsula and Mainland. It is the only race of its kind on the White Continent.
Locations where stages may take place include:
- The South Shetland Islands – where competitors will see the only sign of other human life at the research stations located on King George Island
- Deception Island - which is reached by entering the narrow passage into the flooded caldera of the horse-shoe shaped island
- Paradise Bay on the Antarctic mainland - it could not have a more apt name
- Melchoir Island, Aitcho Island, Dorian Bay, Cuverville Island, Neko Harbour, Danko Island, Wiencke Island and Half Moon Island
- Other locations (we are constantly exploring new locations) We will also navigate some beautiful waterways such as the Gerlache Strait, Neumayer Channel and Lemaire Channel. The latter channel involves narrow passages between towering rock faces and spectacular glaciers.
WEATHER & GEOGRAPHY
Antarctica is the largest desert in the world. Despite holding 70% of the world’s fresh water (as ice) it has an annual precipitation of only 200 mm / 8 inches. About 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice which is an average of 2 kilometers / 1.3 miles thick. It is its own continent and is nearly twice the size of Australia.
Antarctica is considered is the coldest, driest, and windiest continent and has the highest average elevation of all the continents - temperatures have reached −89.2 °C / -128.6 °F.
The Last Desert takes place in November at the start of the Southern Hemisphere summer. This means that there is still significant snow and ice but the temperatures are manageable. You should expect temperatures down to -20C / -4F while running, but the temperatures can drop rapidly at this time of year. It can also be very windy. When the sun comes out it will be closer to 10C / 50F. The sun is very strong – you must be sure to take strong precautions against sunburn and snow blindness. There is also more than 20 hours of day light in Antarctica at this time of year.
One of the main features of weather in Antarctica is that it changes VERY fast. Everything during a visit to Antarctica is weather dependent. The weather can affect the locations where we have a stage, the start time of a stage, the finish time of a stage, the number of stages and the type of terrain.
It is believed that no human had set eyes on Antarctic land until 1820. It was in 1901 when the National Arctic Expedition lead by Captain Scott reached Antarctica. This was shortly before Shackleton’s famous expedition to the South Pole. As of 2016, there are about 135 permanent residents with up to 5,000 people residing throughout the year at the research stations scattered across the continent.
Antarctica is a de facto condominium, governed by parties to the Antarctic Treaty System that have consulting status. Twelve countries signed the Antarctic Treaty in 1959, and thirty-eight have signed it since that time. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, nuclear explosions and nuclear waste disposal. It supports scientific research, and protects the continent.
It is the history and wildlife that gives Antarctica its culture – and it has both of these in abundance!
The primary and most seen animals in Antarctica are: penguins, whales, colossal squid and seals. At The Last Desert you will definitely see various species of penguins and seals – both which choose to come and see the race course – sometimes requiring the course to be changed mid-stage to avoid them(!). On every edition of The Last Desert there have also been some impressive whale sightings.
There are seventeen species of penguins in existence – seven species of penguin are found in Antarctica: Adélies, Chinstraps, Emperors, Gentoos, Macaronis, and Rockhoppers. As well as penguins there are also more than forty-five other species of birds that are commonly seen in Antarctica – although many migrate elsewhere at different times of the year. The most common sightings (other than penguins) are Albatross, Petrels, Cormorants and Terns.
There are six different species of seals in Antarctica: Ross, Weddell, crabeater, leopard, fur and elephant seals. Fur seals are the smallest, with adult females weighing only 150 kg, while male elephant seals can weigh 4000 kg! Antarctic fur seals were very heavily hunted in the 18th and 19th centuries. In some locations ysou can see the remainder of some old whaling stations – the one still most in tact is at Deception Island.
Some of the highlights of The Last Desert include vast penguin rookeries, beaches ruled by Antarctic fur seals, Paradise Bay - perhaps the most aptly named place in the world, navigating iceberg-strewn waters of the Antarctic Sound and the ruins of huts and whaling stations that have been taken over by nesting penguins.
Antartica has a fascinating history – with no native inhabitants it wasn’t until the 1800’s that anyone set eyes on Antarctic land.
As you sail across the Drake Passage from Ushuaia imagine doing the same trip more than 200 years ago in a small wooden ship.
Below is a timeline which is the best way to show the true diversity of Antarctica’s history.
Captain James Cook became the first person to cross the Antarctic Circle.
British mariner William Smith discovered the South Shetland Islands.
James Wendell captained two sealing expeditions where he discovered a new species of seal and reached a record latitude of 74° 15' S.
The Antarctic continent was first seen by human eyes. Historians have disagreed on who those eyes belonged to; at least one possible claimant is believed to have seen land but mistaken it for ice at the time. Credit for being the first man to see the continent has been divided between three men who made separate voyages to Antarctica that year:
Fabian von Bellingshausen, a captain in the Russian Imperial Navy;
Edward Bransfield, a captain in the British navy;
Nathaniel Brown Palmer, an American sealer.
Frenchman ules-Sébastien-César Dumont d'Urville became the first person to set foot on Antarctica. (Some historians believe that John Davis, an American sealer, may have set foot on the Antarctic Peninsula in 1821, but even he was unsure if he landed on the continent itself or a nearby island.)
James Clark Ross discovered what is now known as Ross Island. He also sailed along a huge wall of ice that was later named the Ross Ice Shelf.
A ship headed by Adrien Victor Joseph de Gerlache de Gomery was stuck in the Antarctic ice and was forced to stay the entire winter. De Gerlache also brought back the first photographs of the continent.
A British-funded expedition headed by Carsten Egeberg Borchgrevink was the first to set up a base in Antarctica.
The Briton Capt. Robert Falcon Scott led the National Antarctic Expedition, often referred to as the "Discovery expedition." Many important geographical and scientific discoveries were made on this trip.
Ernest H. Shackleton led an expedition that set up camp on Cape Royds. Shackleton and members of his crew were the first to reach the south magnetic pole.
Norwegian Roald Gravning Amundsen and his party reached the South Pole.
Capt. Scott and members of his crew died on a trip to the South Pole.
Shackleton attempted to cross the "South Polar continent from sea to sea." Although the attempt failed after his ship, the Endurance, was trapped and crushed in the Wendell Sea, no lives was lost.
The first airplane flight was made by Sir George Hubert Wilkins.
Richard E. Byrd made the first flights over the South Pole.
The U.S. Navy conducted Operation Highjump, the largest expedition ever sent to Antarctica
The first winter was spent at McMurdo station.
The International Geophysical Year (IGY) brought together scientific activities of 67 countries.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed on Dec. 1, establishing the legal framework for the management of Antarctica.
The Antarctic Treaty was entered into force on June 23.
Twenty-four countries signed an agreement that barred exploration of Antarctica for oil or mineral deposits for 50 years.
Fifteen competitors in The Last Desert (Antarctica) 2006 completed the first ever 100 mile race on Esperenza, Antarctica. The competitors went on to complete 250 kilometers in three locations including Esperenza, Deception Island and King George Island.