On average, Antarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, and has the highest average elevation of all the continents. Since there is little precipitation, except at the coasts, the interior of the continent is technically the largest desert in the world. There are no permanent human residents. Only cold-adapted plants and animals survive there, including penguins, fur seals, mosses, lichen, and many types of algae.
The Antarctic Treaty was signed in 1959 by twelve countries; to date, forty-six countries have signed the treaty. The treaty prohibits military activities and mineral mining, supports scientific research, and protects the continent's ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted by more than 4,000 scientists of many nationalities and with different research interests.
Centered asymmetrically around the South Pole and largely south of the Antarctic Circle, Antarctica is the southernmost continent and is surrounded by the Southern Ocean; alternatively, it may be considered to be surrounded by the southern Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, or by the southern waters of the World Ocean. It covers more than 14 million km² (5.4 million sq mi), making it the fifth-largest continent, about 1.3 times larger than Europe. The coastline measures 17,968 kilometres (11,160 mi) and is mostly characterized by ice formations.
Antarctica is divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains close to the neck between the Ross Sea and the Weddell Sea. The portion west of the Weddell Sea and east of the Ross Sea is called Western Antarctica and the remainder Eastern Antarctica, because they roughly correspond to the Western and Eastern Hemispheres relative to the Greenwich meridian.
Antarctica is home to more than 70 lakes that lie thousands of metres under the surface of the continental ice sheet. Lake Vostok, discovered beneath Russia's Vostok Station in 1996, is the largest of these subglacial lakes. It was once believed that the lake had been sealed off for 500,000 to one million years but a recent survey suggests that, every so often, there are large flows of water from one lake to another. There is some evidence, in the form of ice cores drilled to about 400 metres (1,300 ft) above the water line, that Vostok's waters may contain microbial life. The frozen surface of the lake shares similarities with Jupiter's moon Europa. If life is discovered in Lake Vostok, this would strengthen the argument for the possibility of life on Europa. On 7 February 2008, a NASA team embarked on a mission to Lake Untersee, searching for extremophiles in its highly-alkaline waters. If found, these resilient creatures could further bolster the argument for extraterrestrial life in extremely cold, methane-rich environments.
Antarctica is the coldest place on Earth, and has no government and belongs to no country.