Developing Your Own Sense of Place About the Polar Regions

 The first step toward understanding the polar regions is to develop a sense of place about the Arctic and Antarctic that makes them as separate in our minds as Austria and Australia, New York and San Francisco, or the Himalaya and the Adirondacks. – Galen Rowell, Poles Apart

To many, this quote may seem odd. How could two cold, dark, and deserted places be as different as New York and San Francisco? Yet these two regions should not be lumped together or confused – they are, in fact, vastly different places. How? For starters, the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land, while Antarctica is land surrounded by ocean. This fundamental geographical difference shapes the climate and ecosystems of the two areas as well.

Misconceptions are not limited to differentiating between the two regions. Even simply defining the Arctic region can be problematic. While a traditional geographic definition includes all area north of the Arctic Circle, alternate definitions do exist. The blog post, Where Does the Arctic Begin? End?, provides an overview of common definitions and includes graphic representations of each.

We realize that you may first need to develop your own sense of place about the Arctic and Antarctica before helping your students do the same. The resources highlighted below provide the content knowledge essential for the planning and teaching of a polar unit. The first resource, a web site produced by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, provides information about both polar regions. The other resources focus on either the Arctic or Antarctica.

In most cases, we’ve directed you to a page within the main site to help you access the content knowledge quickly. Links to the main web sites are provided for those who have the time and interest for further exploration.

Watch and listen to a short video overview of the basic differences between the Arctic and Antarctica from the EducaPoles web site.

Watch a short animation of the definitions of the Arctic and Antarctica from the EducaPoles web site.

Science Content Knowledge Web Sites

Polar Discovery: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
This web site organizes an abundance of content under four tabs. The first, Live from the Poles, tells the stories of four polar expeditions. Information about the team, tools, and findings is presented in a variety of formats (journals, photos, videos, and animations). The second tab, Arctic: The Frozen Ocean, includes the region’s geography, history of exploration, ocean circulation, and ecosystem. The third tab, Antarctica: Frozen Continent, provides the same information (geography, history of exploration, ocean circulation, and ecosystem) for Antarctica. The fourth tab, Compare the Poles, provides information on both regions, some in a helpful T-chart format. This last tab may be very helpful for teachers and students interested in comparing the two polar regions.

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA): Arctic Theme Page: Frequently Asked Questions
While the entire NOAA Arctic Theme Page contains a wealth of information and resources, this FAQ page is a great resource for a busy teacher. Fifteen commonly asked questions about the Arctic are given short, readable answers with links to multimedia resources or further information. For those interested in learning more, Arctic Theme Page includes an additional four tabs: Scientific (information on research projects and centers), General Interest (information on education, the environment, exploration and more), Gallery (images of animals, ships, ice, and the landscape), and Essays (similar to an FAQ page, links questions or topics to essays written by experts).

Arctic Studies Center: Resources: Frequently Asked Questions
The FAQ page of the Smithsonian’s Arctic Studies Center provides paragraph-length answers to questions in the following areas: Geography, Environment, General Information, Eskimos, Innu, and Cultures of the Eurasian Arctic, and the Vikings and the Western Settlement Period. The page also links to a map of the Arctic.

Virtual Antarctica: Science
The Science page of TerraQuest’s Virtual Antarctica site provides links to information about the continent’s animals, environments, geography, geology, snow and ice, climate, and southern skies. The Virtual Antarctica site as a whole has five other sections: Ship’s Log (journals and photos from the staff’s travels), Expedition (information about traveling to and around Antarctica), Guidebook (links to resources about Antarctica’s features), History (details the history of Antarctic exploration), and Ecology (links to information about krill harvesting, global warming, and ozone depletion).

Reading: Some Background on Antarctica
This page is one of many articles available on the American Museum of Natural History’s Antarctica: The Farthest Place Closest to Home. This article provides some amazing facts, a description of the driest, coldest, and windiest place on earth, and a sample of scientific questions that can be answered through Antarctic research.

Wikipedia Article: Southern Ocean
You are probably familiar with the four major oceans: Atlantic, Pacific, Indian, and Arctic. However, a fifth ocean, the Southern Ocean, has been named by mariners for some time. As of 2000, the International Hydrographic Organization decided to classify the waters around Antarctica a separate ocean called the Southern Ocean. While still the subject of debate, many consider this a separate ocean because the waters and currents are different from those in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian Oceans. This article from Wikipedia provides background information on this ocean.


National Science Education Standards: Science Content Standards

This issue of Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears is aligned with the following content standards: Content Standard A: Science as Inquiry (K-4 and 5-8), Content Standard C: Life Science (K-4 and 5-8), Content Standard D: Earth and Space Science (K-4 and 5-8), and Content Standard F: Science in Personal and Social Perspectives (K-4 and 5-8).

Read the entire National Science Education Standards online for free or register to download the free PDF. The content standards are found in Chapter 6.

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Jessica at

Copyright March 2008 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.

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