Antarctica is a continent encircling the Earth's South Pole, surrounded by the Southern Ocean and divided in two by the Transantarctic Mountains. It is a cold desert and, on average, the coldest place on Earth. 98% of the continent is covered by ice. Its 14 million km² make it the fifth largest continent and the world's largest desert. There are no permanent human residents, and only cold-adapted plants and animals survive there, including penguins, fur seals, and hundreds of types of algae.
Although myths and speculation about a Terra Australis ("Southern Land") go back to antiquity, the first commonly accepted sighting of the continent occurred in 1820 and the first verified landing in 1821 by the Russian expedition of Mikhail Lazarev and Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen. The continent had been largely neglected in the 19th century because of its hostile environment, lack of efficient resources, and its isolated location.
Antarctica is not under the political sovereignty of any nation, although various countries including Argentina, Chile, France, Australia, and New Zealand maintain internationally unrecognized territorial claims. Its usage is regulated by the Antarctic Treaty, signed in 1959 by 12 countries, which prohibits any military activity, supports scientific research, and protects the continent's ecozone. Ongoing experiments are conducted yearly by more than 4,000 scientists of diverse backgrounds and interests.
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