Poles Apart: The Arctic vs The Antarctic

The North and South Pole, they’re the same thing, right? Both barren icy wildernesses full of penguins, polar bears, blizzard winds and freezing cold temperatures.

If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re wrong. There are actually a lot of differences between the two regions and more than just geographical location. So, before you call us to book your expedition cruise, here are a few differences between the Arctic and Antarctic that may help to inform your choice.

The Coldest Place on Earth

Though both the Arctic and the Antarctic are both extremely cold regions, the artic is in fact much warmer than its southern counterpart. With most of the Arctic cruises taking place during the summer, you can expect to take at least one layer off with average temperatures of 37°F due to the warmer ocean currents.

However, if it’s ice, snow and below zero temperatures you’re looking for then the Antarctic is the perfect choice. With average temperatures of -55°C and the lowest temperature ever recorded anywhere in the world, coming in at -89.2°C. You’d better pack plenty of jumpers!

Ice, Ice, Baby

The Arctic region comprises a wide range of landscapes - mountains, rivers, lakes, rolling hills and enormous stretches of tundra. A large proportion of the ice here is found in the Arctic Ocean, formed by the frozen sea being contained by the land masses surrounding it. Sea ice can reach thicknesses of up to 4 metres (that’s 13 feet) all year round.

In contrast, Antarctica is 98% covered in ice, meaning its landscape is icy mountains, glaciers and expanses of smooth sheet ice. Unlike the Arctic, there are no rivers, small lakes which are usually completely frozen, no grass or trees and little to no vegetation.

On the Continent

Possibly the most significant and commonly known difference is that unlike Antarctica, the Arctic is a not a continent. Several countries have territorial claims in the Arctic region, including Canada, Denmark, Greenland, Norway, Iceland, Russia, Finland and Sweden. Circumpolar inhabitants often share more in common with each other than with those within the national boundaries. The Arctic boasts a population of around 4,000,000.

Antarctica however, is a continent in its own right. In fact, it is the fifth-largest continent in the world, covering more than 5,400,000 square miles and around 1.3 times larger than Europe. This frozen desert also has no indigenous population, with only 135 permanent and 500 temporary residents manning permanently maintained research stations.

Age of Discovery

Compared to the Arctic, Antarctica is a relatively new discovery. The Arctic was first recorded as existing in 325BC when the ancient Greek merchant Pytheas of Massalia was attempting to find a source for the element tin and instead reached a frozen sea. He was also the first person to record a description of what we now know as the Northern Lights.

The Antarctic, however, though long searched for, was not actually discovered until the 1700s. It wasn’t until January 17th, 1773 that the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time in human history, by Captain James Cook’s expedition. The first landing on the continent, however, didn’t come until several years later in 1821 when American Captain John Davis claimed to set foot there.


Though seen by many as barren, uninhabitable wilderness, both the Arctic and Antarctic are home to animals, sea life and plant life. The Arctic is home to many large animals such as reindeer, arctic fox and snowy owls. This is also the place you’ll find the ever-popular polar bear. Large concentrations of animals are rare, however, due to the land being unproductive and the migration between land masses during summer and winter months. The Arctic Ocean itself also plays host to large marine animals such as Narwhals and species of whale.

A stark contrast, however, is Antarctica, where the largest permanent land animal is an insect (no flying insects here as they’d get blown away!). However, there are a good number of animals who co-habit between the land and sea including several species of seal and one of the most sought-after sights on a polar expedition - the beloved penguin.

These regions may have their differences, but whether you choose an Arctic or Antarctic cruise, you are in for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure, filled with natural wonder and awe-inspiring sights. Please call us today or submit an online enquiry so that we can help you plan your polar expedition.

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