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Rock in Antarctica

For most of us, rocks are just the hard things we might clamber over at the seaside or something that sparkles in a jeweller’s window. However, to geologists they represent one of the few ways we have of looking deep back into the past. Rocks, and the fossils they may contain, show us how the world was in former times. They tell us of past hotter and colder climates, of cataclysmic events, and of the slow grind of the tectonic plates. They also map out the halting path, with its false starts and premature ends, that life has taken to get to where it is now.

Dinosaur hunting on Sandwich Bluff, Vega Island.  Fossil remains of a hypsilophodontid dinosaur that is about 70 million years old. The fragmented bones of the skull, fore limbs and vertebral column from a 5 metre long animal were collected on a scientific cruise to James Ross Island
Dinosaur hunting on Sandwich Bluff, Vega Island.

Most of Antarctica is an ice-covered wilderness. However, a small area (less than one percent) is free of ice and the continent contains some of the most spectacular mountain ranges anywhere in the World. The most extensive are the Antarctic Peninsula, 1700km, and the Transantarctic Mountains, 3000km. The highest mountain, Vinson Massif in the Ellsworth Mountains, peaks at 4897m.

A particular feature of Antarctic rock is that, for the most part, surfaces are clean and freshly weathered. Vegetation cover is minimal. Apart from some low-lying coastal exposures, with penguin rookeries, they are not colonised by animals. For these reasons, commonly, geological structures and detailed rock relationships are superbly displayed and easy to see in the field.