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Hulton Archive / Getty

Irish explorer Sir Ernest Henry Shackleton and two members of his expedition team beside a Union Jack within 111 miles (178 km) of the South Pole

On Dec. 1, 1959, representatives from a dozen countries, including the U.S., Japan and the U.K. met in Washington to sign a treaty intended to keep the Cold War out of the coldest place on Earth. Fifty years later, the Antarctic Treaty is still in effect, making it one of the world's most successful international agreements, with its member nations still meeting once a year. The pact calls for keeping Antarctica a continent free of weapons and reserved for scientific research alone; its signatories vow to refrain from making any claims to the territory, which is considered neutral ground. The pact fulfilled a longtime goal of its brainchild, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who feared the remote region could one day become an area for military competition. "The Antarctic Treaty and the guarantees it embodies constitute a significant advance toward the goal of a peaceful world with justice," he said the day the treaty was signed.

More often associated with penguins and whales than science and peace, 98% of Antarctica is covered by ice — much of which is a mile and a half deep. The continent holds the record for the coldest temperature in recorded history: a numbing -128.6°F on July 21, 1983, in the middle of the southern hemisphere's winter. Nearly one and a half times as large as the United States, Antarctica is geologically classified as a desert, garnering less than an inch of precipitation each year. It is the coldest, driest and windiest continent, not to mention the highest — Antarctica's average elevation is 7,544 feet (2,299 m). The name Antarctica comes from the Greek word antarktiké meaning "opposite to the north."

Scientists have suspected the existence of a southern landmass that balanced the globe's northern continents since as early as 150 A.D., when Greek astronomer Ptolemy suggested the existence of a "unknown southern land." But no humans actually set eyes on Antarctica until 1820. In a great race to the bottom of the world, ships from Russia, Britain and the U.S. all spotted the landmass within months of one another in 1820. The first explorer to discover Antarctica is widely believed to have been Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen, whose expedition first spotted land in January 1820. But further interest in the continent waned in the 1800s and Antarctica largely went unexplored until the final decade of that century, when some 16 expeditions explored the area.

The continent's most famous exploration, however, remains the race to the South Pole in the early 1900s between British naval officer Robert Falcon Scott and Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Using 52 sled dogs and with four companions, Amundsen won the race — making it to the pole after a near two-month journey on Dec. 19, 1911. It took until nearly March for the team to reach Tasmania where they could send a telegram to let the rest of the world know of their feat. Scott later arrived on Jan. 17, 1912, just a month after Amundsen, but his entire team died on the return trip of exhaustion and bitter cold.

The signing of the Antarctic Treaty dedicated the continent entirely to research, from which have come a slew of discoveries about our planet. British scientists discovered the gaping, man-made hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, while studies of Antarctic ice have contributed to our understanding of climate change — and increased concerns over catastrophically high sea levels if the continent's thick glaciers were to melt. One of the most integral aspects of Antarctic scientific study remains, surprisingly, meteorites: the continent is a collecting ground for them, preserved well because they naturally bury into the ice for thousands of years.

Antarctica has no permanent residents, just the 1,000 to 5,000 scientists who staff its research centers, usually for a few months at a time. But more and more are coming to visit: more than 45,000 tourists visited Antarctica during its most recent summer, and on average about 30,000 visitors flock to the frigid continent each year. Trips don't come cheap: a round-trip ticket — most likely by cruise ship — to the bottom of the earth can cost between $5,000 and $10,000. Nevertheless, at least five people have been born in Antarctica, the first being Argentinian Emilio Marcos Palma, whose mother, Silvia Morella de Palma, flew there to give birth in order to beat Chile in having the first Antarctica-born baby, on Jan. 7, 1978 — marking the southernmost birth in history. And despite not having much of a local economy, Antarctica still boasts a postal service, including branches of the U.S. Postal Service, to send and receive mail.

While the Antarctic Treaty continues to prohibit any government or military from overseeing the entire continent, Japan, China, India, the U.S. and many other countries maintain research stations there, thus claiming those areas, though not considered legal territories. But since 1996, the continent has had an unofficial flag to represent itself — a white depiction of the landmass, surrounded by light blue to indicate its neutrality.