The geography of Antarctica may appear perplexing at first. Much of Antarctica appears featureless and white from space, implying that there are few elements to guide you. It’s one thing to be aware that Pine Island Glacier is located in West Antarctica, but it’s another to know which part of the iced continent is which.
Antarctica is divided into three primary areas: the Antarctic Peninsula, West Antarctica, and East Antarctica. But did you know that a mountain range separates West and East Antarctica?
The Transantarctic Mountains separate East and West Antarctica. Examine this guide for a comprehensive overview of the Transantarctic Mountains, including climate, geology, and notable mountains in the range.
The Transantarctic Mountains are a mountain range that runs the length of the peninsula and across the continent. In addition to providing spectacular views, the Transantarctic act as a dividing line across Antarctica, separating West and East.
The Transantarctic Mountains (TAM) are an uplifted (primarily sedimentary) rock mountain range in Antarctica that extends, with some interruptions, throughout the continent from northern Victoria Land’s Cape Adare to Coats Land. They consist of several individually named mountain groups frequently subdivided into smaller ranges.
The range was in 1841 discovered by James Clark Ross, who named it the Ross Ice Shelf in his honor. The British National Antarctic Expedition of 1901 to 1904 was the first to cross it.
The mountain range spans the entire width of Antarctica between the Weddell Sea and the Ross Sea, hence the name. The Transantarctic Mountains are among the world’s longest mountain ranges, stretching approximately 3,500 kilometers. The Antarctandes are even longer, sharing the ranges from Cape Adare Mountains to the Queen Maud Mountains with the Transantarctic Mountains but extending up the Antarctic Peninsula through the Whitmore and Ellsworth Mountains.
West and East Antarctica are separated by a 100-300 km wide range. The TAM is bounded on the Eastern Hemisphere side by the East Antarctic Ice Sheet. In contrast, the Western Hemisphere side is bounded by the Ross Sea in Victoria Land from the Ross Ice Shelf from McMurdo Sound to near the Scott Glacier, Cape Adare to McMurdo Sound, and the West Antarctic Ice Sheet beyond.
The TAM’s summits and dry valleys are among the few places in Antarctica that are not covered by ice, with the highest rising more than 4,500 meters (14,800 feet) above sea level. The McMurdo Dry Valleys are located near McMurdo Sound and depict a unique Antarctic phenomenon: snow-free landscapes due to severely limited precipitation and ice ablation in the valleys.
The Queen Alexandra Range’s Mount Kirkpatrick, among the tallest mountains in Antarctica, is the TAM’s highest peak at 4,528 meters. Nunataks are isolated peaks that are surrounded by ice.
Captain James Ross first saw the Transantarctic Mountains from the Ross Sea in 1841. The range is a natural border you must cross from the Ross Ice Shelf to the South Pole.
The first crossing of these mountains occurred at the Ross Ice Shelf during the British National Antarctic Expedition of 1902-1904. In 1902, a reconnaissance party led by Albert Armitage reached an altitude of 2700 meters.
The following year, an expedition led by Robert Falcon Scott traversed into East Antarctica at what is now identified as Ferrar Glacier, called after the expedition’s geologist. They explored part of the Antarctic Plateau’s Victoria Land before returning using the same glacier.
Ernest Shackleton’s party traversed the mountains via the Beardmore Glacier in 1908. In 1911, Robert Scott went back to that glacier while Roald Amundsen traversed the range through the Axel Heiberg Glacier.
Much of the range stayed unexplored until the late 40s and 50s, when missions like the International Geophysical Year (IGY) and Operation Highjump used aerial photography extensively and focused on thoroughly investigating the entire continent.
Following his IGY fieldwork, geologist Warren B. Hamilton coined the term “Transantarctic Mountains” for this range in a 1960 paper. The US-ACAN committee, an American authority on geographic names, recommended it in 1962. In contrast to other geographical names on Antarctica, this purely descriptive label is currently accepted internationally.
The planned route through the Transantarctic range for the overland supply road in McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station is the Leverett Glacier in the Queen Maud Mountains.
Along the Ross Sea coastline in Victoria Land, seals, penguins, and sea birds live, while life inside the Transantarctic Range is limited to bacteria, algae, lichens, and fungi. Antarctica was once covered in forests, including abundant Southern Beech and Wollemi Pine.
These forests, however, gradually vanished due to the gradual cooling linked with the breakup of Gondwana. The last trees in Antarctica are thought to have been found in the Transantarctic Mountains.
The Transantarctic Mountains are much older than the continent’s other mountain ranges, which are mostly volcanic in origin. The range was uplifted during the West Antarctic Rift System’s early Cenozoic opening to the east, which began around 65 million years ago.
The mountains are made up of sedimentary layers that rest on a bedrock of gneisses and granites. Beacon Supergroup siltstones, sandstones, and coal were deposited starting in the Silurian period and extending into the Jurassic.
Sills and dikes of Jurassic age Ferrar Dolerite have infiltrated the Beacon Supergroup in many places. Many of the fossils discovered in Antarctica come from these sedimentary formations.
Ice from the East Antarctic ice sheet passes through the Transantarctic Mountains and into the Ross Ice Shelf, Ross Sea, and West Antarctic Ice Sheet via a series of outlet glaciers. These glaciers flow perpendicular to the range’s orientation and define peak groups and subranges.
Many of these outlet glaciers are thought to follow the remnants of large-scale geologic faults. The ice flow theories, however, will be reconsidered in light of new data from the latest ice-penetrating radar surveys, which revealed the existence of three previously unrecognized deep subglacial valleys influencing the mountainous subglacial topography underneath the ice divide. These geographical features will most likely significantly impact ice flow models and calculations in the Transantarctic Mountains.
Hiking in the Transantarctic Mountains
The Transantarctic Mountains present remote and daunting challenges for avid mountaineers because they are made up of numerous hills, mountains, glaciers, domes, and bluffs, some of which are ice-free.
Because Antarctica is a secluded continent with an extremely harsh and cold climate, mountain climbing requires careful planning. Because of the high cost of mountaineering expeditions in Antarctica, many mountains have never been climbed.
Because of its isolation, extreme weather, and lack of medical facilities, mountaineering in Antarctica is also extremely dangerous.