The Arctic vs Antarctica: 10 Key Differences

Aside from Santa’s North Pole, here are 10 facts distinguishing the two polar regions from one another.

Friday, November 10, 2017

The Arctic vs Antarctica

The ends of the Earth are similar in some ways: they contain large unexplored regions, and at the crux of winter, there’s complete darkness. Also, only certain wildlife survive in such extremes.

However, despite some similarities, these two regions of the world are actually quite different. Here are ten facts distinguishing the Arctic vs Antarctica from one another that can help you decide which destination can be your next vacation.

1. Penguins are only seen in Antarctica

While it may seem counterintuitive, given that Antarctica and the Arctic are cold regions, penguins are absent from the Arctic.

There are no land predators in the Antarctic, which means it’s a bit easier for penguins to survive, including the Adélie penguin, Emperor penguin, Chinstrap penguin, and Gentoo penguin. The waters, however, are a different story! The idea that penguins are only found in Antarctica and not in the Arctic is rooted in the geographical distribution of penguin species.

Penguins are a group of flightless birds that have adapted to life in the Southern Hemisphere. Most penguin species inhabit sub-Antarctic islands, the Antarctic continent, and the surrounding southern oceans. They have evolved specialized features, such as streamlined bodies and flipper-like wings, which enable them to thrive in the cold waters of the Southern Hemisphere.

The Arctic is primarily characterized by sea ice, limiting the types of animals that inhabit the region. Penguins are not equipped to navigate through ice-covered waters in the same way that seals and polar bears do.

2. Polar bears only exist in the Arctic

These larger-than-life bears roam the North in search of prey and habitat. The distribution of polar bears exclusively in the Arctic, rather than Antarctica, is a result of these polar regions’ distinct ecological and geographic characteristics. Polar bears are highly specialized marine mammals that have evolved to thrive in the Arctic environment.

Polar bears have adapted to the sea ice environment of the Arctic Ocean, relying on it for hunting seals and traveling between ice floes. Antarctica lacks the extensive sea ice habitat crucial for polar bears’ hunting and survival strategies.

Polar bears are believed to have evolved from brown bears, adapting to the Arctic marine environment over thousands of years. This evolutionary process occurred in the Arctic, shaping the unique characteristics of polar bears. Polar bears are highly adapted to life on sea ice. They use it as a platform for hunting seals, their primary prey. The vast stretches of sea ice in the Arctic provide an ideal environment for polar bears, whereas Antarctica’s geography does not support a comparable ice-covered habitat.

3. Antarctica is a continent, and the Arctic is an ocean!

Arguably, the most significant difference between the two regions is that Antarctica is a continent surrounded by oceans. At the same time, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by continents and countries —North America, Europe, and Asia.

Antarctica is the southernmost continent on Earth, surrounded by the Southern Ocean. It is the fifth-largest continent and contains about 70% of the world’s freshwater, stored in the form of ice. Antarctica is a landmass covered by a thick ice sheet with an average elevation much higher than the Arctic’s. It is geologically diverse, featuring mountain ranges, valleys, and the East Antarctic Plateau, which contains the highest point on the continent, Dome Argus. Antarctica is also home to numerous glaciers and ice shelves.

Antarctic landscape. Photography by Ben Osborne.

Antarctic landscape. Photography by Ben Osborne.

Conversely, the Arctic is not a landmass but rather an ocean surrounded by land. The Arctic Ocean is the smallest and shallowest of the world’s oceans. The Arctic Ocean is characterized by sea ice, which varies in extent seasonally. The Arctic Ocean is largely covered by floating ice, and its ice cover plays a crucial role in regulating global climate patterns. The Arctic region includes the ocean and the surrounding land areas, often referred to as the Arctic Circle, where the landscape features tundra, boreal forests, and Arctic deserts.

4. The Arctic and the Antarctic have opposite seasons

Because they are on opposite sides of the world, the Arctic and the Antarctic do not share the same seasons, and therefore, you can travel to each destination during different times of the year.

Travel to the Arctic and Antarctica is typically limited to specific times of the year, during summer in each destination, due to the extreme environmental conditions in these polar regions. Arctic travel is from June to August, while expeditions to Antarctica are from November to March.

During the summer, the Arctic and Antarctic experience milder temperatures, and the sea ice is at its minimum extent, allowing for more straightforward navigation and wildlife observations.

It’s important to note that travel to these polar regions is highly regulated, with strict environmental guidelines to protect the fragile ecosystems. Visitors often need to adhere to the International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators (IAATO) guidelines. Access to certain areas may also be restricted to minimize human environmental impact.

5. There is more diversity in flora in the Arctic than in the Antarctic

The flora in the Arctic and Antarctic regions is adapted to the extreme polar climates, but there are notable differences between the two.

The Arctic has a considerable flora with 900 flowering plants – like Arctic poppies, saxifrages, Arctic willows, and various sedges – despite its tundra ecosystem, where the ground is frozen for a significant portion of the year. Tundra vegetation includes low-growing plants such as mosses, lichens, grasses, and dwarf shrubs. Arctic plants have adaptations to cope with the cold temperatures and the short growing season. Many are perennials that flower quickly when conditions are favorable and produce seeds that can withstand the harsh winter.

The Antarctic has very little vegetation, primarily lichens, mosses, and algae. Antarctic plants, particularly mosses, have evolved to survive extremely cold and dry conditions. They are adapted to absorb moisture from the air, as liquid water is scarce in Antarctica. Due to the extreme conditions and isolation of Antarctica, the biodiversity of its flora is lower compared to the Arctic. Mosses and lichens are the primary colonizers of ice-free areas, forming simple ecosystems.

There are only two flowering plants in Antarctica. One notable exception to the lack of vascular plants is the Antarctic hairgrass (Deschampsia antarctica), the only native grass species in Antarctica. It has adapted to survive in the harsh conditions of the continent.

6. Antarctica has no indigenous population

Indigenous populations live in the Arctic, whereas Antarctica has no indigenous population. There are over 40 different ethnic groups living in the Arctic, such as the Inuit living in Alaska, Northern Canada, and Greenland; the Saami living in the circumpolar areas of Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Northwestern Russia; and the Chukchi in Siberia and the Russian Far East.

Except for seasonal workers and small settlements at research stations, Antarctica is entirely uninhabited. Antarctica is politically governed by the Antarctic Treaty System, a cooperative international agreement that designates the continent as a scientific preserve, prohibits military activity, and promotes international scientific research.

7. You can see these wildlife species in Antarctica…

Apart from penguins, you can find seabirds like the Southern Fulmar, Antarctic Petrel, Snow Petrel, and South Polar Skua. Birds are essential components of the Antarctic ecosystem.

You can see various types of regional seals in Antarctica on ice floes and ice-covered shores, like the Leopard seal, the Weddell seal, the Crabeater seal, and the Elephant seal, all of which do not exist outside the continent.

Leopard seal in Antarctica. Photography by Ana Carla Martínez.

Leopard seal in Antarctica. Photography by Ana Carla Martínez.

The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is rich in marine life, and several whale species can be spotted. Common species include the Minke whale, Orcas (killer whales), Humpback whale, and Blue whale.

While not visible directly, krill are tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that form a crucial part of the Antarctic food chain. They are a primary food source for many species, including whales, seals, and various seabirds.

8. You can see these wildlife species in the Arctic…

In addition to the iconic polar bears, you can spot walrus, narwhals, Arctic foxes, wolves, Arctic hares, reindeer, oxen, puffins, seals, whales, and other types of animals in the Arctic that do not make their home in the Antarctic.

9. Both regions have international claims over each area

While there are ongoing disputes over sections of the Arctic Ocean, jurisdiction over Arctic lands is internationally recognized as belonging to specific nations: Alaska belongs to the US, Canada’s Arctic regions are part of Canada, etc. In Antarctica, seven countries have made territorial claims. However, since 1961, the continent has been governed through a Treaty System through which member nations collaborate on scientific and environmental protection initiatives.

10. Antarctica is colder than the Arctic!

The least known difference between the two regions is that, on average, Antarctica is significantly colder than the Arctic. The main reason for this is that Antarctica is a high continent covered by a very thick layer of ice, whereas the Arctic benefits from the temperating effects of the ocean.

Bonus Fact

The word “Antarctic” originates from the Greek antarktikos, meaning “opposite to the north,” from ant- ‘against’ + arktikos.

Now you know! Be sure to review our guide to the wildlife and sites of interest you may see on your trip to Antarctica.

A group of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica. Photography by Philip Stone.

A group of Gentoo penguins in Antarctica. Photography by Philip Stone.


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