Antarctica is the coldest of Earth's continents. The coldest natural temperature ever recorded on Earth was −89.2 °C (−128.6 °F) at the Soviet (now Russian) Vostok Station in Antarctica on 21 July 1983. For comparison, this is 11 °C (20 °F) colder than subliming dry ice at one atmosphere of partial pressure, but since CO2 only makes up 0.039% of air, temperatures of less than -150 °C would be needed to produce dry ice snow in Antarctica. Antarctica is a frozen desert with little precipitation; the South Pole itself receives less than 10 cm (4 in) per year, on average. Temperatures reach a minimum of between −80 °C (−112 °F) and −90 °C (−130 °F) in the interior in winter and reach a maximum of between 5 °C (41 °F) and 15 °C (59 °F) near the coast in summer. Sunburn is often a health issue as the snow surface reflects almost all of the ultraviolet light falling on it. Given the latitude, long periods of constant darkness or constant sunlight create climates unfamiliar to human beings in much of the rest of the world.

East Antarctica is colder than its western counterpart because of its higher elevation. Weather fronts rarely penetrate far into the continent, leaving the center cold and dry. Despite the lack of precipitation over the central portion of the continent, ice there lasts for extended periods. Heavy snowfalls are common on the coastal portion of the continent, where snowfalls of up to 1.22 metres (48 in) in 48 hours have been recorded.

At the edge of the continent, strong katabatic winds off the polar plateau often blow at storm force. In the interior, wind speeds are typically moderate. During clear days in summer, more solar radiation reaches the surface at the South Pole than at the equator because of the 24 hours of sunlight each day at the Pole.

Antarctica is colder than the Arctic for three reasons. First, much of the continent is more than 3,000 m (9,800 ft) above sea level, and temperature decreases with elevation in the troposphere. Second, the Arctic Ocean covers the north polar zone: the ocean's relative warmth is transferred through the icepack and prevents temperatures in the Arctic regions from reaching the extremes typical of the land surface of Antarctica. Third, the Earth is at aphelion in July (i.e., the Earth is furthest from the Sun in the Antarctic winter), and the Earth is at perihelion in January (i.e., the Earth is closest to the Sun in the Antarctic summer). The orbital distance contributes to a colder Antarctic winter (and a warmer Antarctic summer) but the first two effects have more impact.

The aurora australis, commonly known as the southern lights, is a glow observed in the night sky near the South Pole created by the plasma-full solar winds that pass by the Earth. Another unique spectacle is diamond dust, a ground-level cloud composed of tiny ice crystals. It generally forms under otherwise clear or nearly clear skies, so people sometimes also refer to it as clear-sky precipitation. A sun dog, a frequent atmospheric optical phenomenon, is a bright "spot" beside the true sun.