Antarctica

28 Aug 2012

Shackleton Range by Michael Studinger / NASA on Flickr

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, driest (yes!), most remote continent on the Earth. Even in these seemingly impossible conditions people survive and explore; and even this far from centres of population and industry the environment is under threat.

Discover why, and what is being done to protect one of the last few relatively unspoilt places on the planet.

Topics covered

This six-minute time-lapse video shows all aspects of life in Antarctica over the course of a year:

Emblem of the Antarctic Treaty
Emblem of the Antarctic Treaty

The Antarctic Treaty

This treaty, in force from 1961, currently has 53 signatories. It sets aside Antarctica as a scientific preserve, establishes freedom of scientific investigation and bans military activity on that continent. This is an unusually successful example of international cooperation and efforts to protect the environment; you could get students to think about why the treaty has succeeded when so many other attempts to work together internationally fail.

Read more on the Antarctic Treaty Secretariat website and on the Wikipedia Antarctic Treaty System page.

The Antarctic Emblem – can students come up with an explanation for its design? Or come up with a better one?

Exploration

“I am just going outside and may be some time.” These are the famous last words of Lawrence Oates, a member of Scott’s expedition team, as he left their tent to die from cold and hunger. They seem to encapsulate the spirit of the heroic age of Antarctic exploration.

Roald Amundsen and his crew looking at the Norwegian flag at the South Pole, 1911
Roald Amundsen and his crew looking at the Norwegian flag at the South Pole, 1911

The first attempt to find a route from the Antarctic coastline to the South Pole was made by British explorer Robert Falcon Scott on the Discovery Expedition of 1901–04. Scott, accompanied by Ernest Shackleton and Edward Wilson, set out with the aim of travelling as far south as possible, and on 31 December 1902, reached 82°16’ S.

The first humans to reach the Geographic South Pole were Norwegian Roald Amundsen and his party on 14 December 1911. Scott had also returned to Antarctica with his second expedition, the Terra Nova Expedition. Scott and four other men reached the South Pole on 17 January 1912, 34 days after Amundsen. On the return trip, Scott and his four companions all died of starvation and extreme cold.

This tragedy has resulted in Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition being viewed as a ‘heroic failure’ but the ‘race to the pole’ was not the overall aim. The expedition had the largest team of scientists that had ever visited the Antarctic continent, and the specimens they brought back and the scientific studies they made are still consulted to this day.

Ernest Shackleton returned south in 1914 to tackle another challenge, crossing the whole Antarctic continent from coast to coast via the South Pole. However his ship Endurance became trapped in the ice and crushed. Thus began an incredible tale of heroism and leadership. After months on the drifting ice, Shackleton led his party of 28 men to the uninhabited Elephant Island, then with five companions undertook an 800-mile journey in an open boat to South Georgia. It took them 15 days. Once landed they set off on a gruelling 36-hour march across the island’s mountains and glaciers to reach the whaling station where they could set about organising a rescue operation. It took four attempts before Shackleton was able to return to Elephant Island and rescue all his men, four months after leaving them there. They arrived back in Britain in 1916, and tragically, after surviving so many dangers with Shackleton, some of his men were killed in action or wounded in the First World War.

  • The centenary of the 1910-13 Terra Nova Expedition is being marked by a series of events across the globe: visit the Scott 100 website to find out if there are any events happening near you.
  • Diaries, letters and poems from Antarctic explorers can be found on the Discovering Antarctica website.
  • This BBC News Magazine article Stark images of Shackleton’s struggle features photos taken by the expedition’s photographer Frank Hurley.
  • See inside Shackleton’s hut, where an expeditionary team spent an entire winter in 1908. See also these Google Antarctic Panoramas
  • You could use these alongside some fantastic images and video to inspire student’s creativity (see resources section at the bottom of the page for suggestions)
  • Why do some people want to journey to previously unexplored places, and push the boundaries of what has been achieved? What are the characteristics of people like Shackleton and Scott and could students learn from them?

Climate change / Hole in ozone layer

Antarctica has the lowest naturally occurring temperature ever recorded on the ground on Earth −89.2 °C (Gavin Hudson, The Coldest Inhabited Places on Earth)

The Antarctic ice sheet is the largest single mass of ice on Earth. It covers an area of almost 14 million square km and contains 30 million cubic km of ice – accounting for around 90% of all fresh water on the Earth’s surface. This ice plays a vitally important role in influencing the world’s climate, reflecting back the sun’s energy and helping regulate global temperatures. (WWF)

Students could study maps and images of the continent alongside data to explore the evidence for climate change – patterns are much less clear there than in the Arctic. Some fairly complicated maps and data can be found on the AMRC / AWS website.

The Warnings from the Ice section of the PBS website has some detailed interactive material including what we can learn about the history of our climate from ice cores and what would happen if all the ice were to melt…

In 1985 British Antarctic Survey scientists discovered a ‘hole’ in the ozone layer over Antarctica. The ozone layer is vital to life on Earth because it absorbs harmful ultraviolet radiation from the sun’s rays. Ozone-depleting chemicals (such as CFCs) had been released, mainly in the northern hemisphere, and had travelled south through global atmospheric circulation. It was Antarctica’s unique climate that had caused the hole to form over the continent, and it served as a warning that the whole ozone layer was under threat. International agreements led to a reduction in the emission of ozone-depleting chemicals, but the original compounds are so long-lived there will be an ozone hole each Antarctic spring for at least another 50 years.

Exploiting Antarctica’s resources

It is known that there are minerals, coal and possibly oil on and around the Antarctic continent, but commercial mining of such resources is completely banned under the terms of the Antarctic Treaty. The conditions are really too hostile for any commercial exploitation to be viable, but this may change if/when technology improves and the oil price increases.

The Southern Ocean surrounding Antarctica is one of the largest marine ecosystems in the world. The upwelling of deep water brings nutrients near to the surface, enabling phytoplankton to flourish and form the basis of a rich food chain.

Fisheries in the Southern Ocean are managed in a unique way – scientists can limit catches to levels that leave the ocean’s unique ecosystem in a sustainable state of health. However, the vast size and harsh conditions of the Southern Ocean make it hard to police, and conservation efforts are being thwarted by illegal fishing. With some fish now being threatened there are implications up the food chain for penguins and other animals.

The Patagonian toothfish is one of the species hardest hit by the pirates. A pretty fearsome-looking fish (try doing an internet image search!) it is marketed as ‘Chilean seabass’ to make it more appealing to upmarket restaurants. The use of longline fishing for species like this has also resulted in the death of substantial numbers of albatross, who dive for the bait, get caught by the hooks and drown.

Tourism

Around 50,000 tourists visit Antarctica every year – far more tourists visit than scientific staff.

There are environmental implications of this tourism but if done responsibly people can learn from the continent’s unique environment. The Cool Antarctica website uses the following quotes to demonstrate the different views on the benefit or otherwise to Antarctic tourim – what do your students think?

“You can’t protect what you don’t know.”
Lars-Eric Lindblad, leader of the first commercial Antarctica cruise in 1966

“We should have the sense to leave just one place alone.”
Sir Peter Scott, Founder of the WWF and son of Robert Falcon Scott

How would your students prepare for a trip and what could they do to limit the impact they had?

The International Association of Antarctic tour Operators is a membership organisation promoting safe and environmentally responsible travel to the Antarctic- have a read through their guidelines.

Penguins

Emperor penguins by Sandwich Girl - click to view on flickr.com
Emperor penguins by Sandwich Girl – click to view on flickr.com

Scientists have recently discovered there are twice as many penguins living in Antarctica as they previously thought, thanks to satellite mapping.

They were the chosen animal for the publisher, Penguin, as they were a ‘dignified but flippant’ symbol.

The ARKive Education website has a fun Penguin Mask Making activity for 5-7 year olds, which helps them learn about the different species of penguin and how they are adapted to their different habitats.

The film March of the Penguins has been used by teachers to draw comparisons with the difficulties and dedication involved in raising a family. Film education also has some primary worksheets around this film.

But they’re not always so friendly, as this BBC clip will show…

Further links and teaching resources

Global Calendar

The following days provide good opportunities to explore Antarctica in your lessons

Teaching resources

Priced

Free / online

The photo at the top of the page is of the Shackleton Range in Antarctica, taken by Michael Studinger/NASA and is used under a Creative Commons licence.

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