The Top (and Bottom) of the World

This nonfiction article is written for use with students. In this article, your students can explore the geographical uniqueness of the North and South poles. Printable pdf files allow you to print this story in either text or a foldable book format. Your students can listen to the story while they read our electronic book version. Related activities provide tips for integrating this story with your science and literacy instruction.Interested in other nonfiction articles for your students? Browse all twenty sets from the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears collection on our Stories for Students page!

The Top (and Bottom) of the World

In April 2007, a performance artist from the Netherlands spent one entire day on the top of the world. For that day, he stood on the geographic North Pole, moving his feet very slowly so that the whole Earth rotated beneath him. He called it “The Day I Didn’t Turn with the Earth.”

Imagine you are standing on the North Pole. What do you see? First of all, you don’t see any land. In fact, you aren’t standing on land at all, but instead you are atop a sheet of ice floating over a cold, deep ocean. At the South Pole, you would be over land, and atop a high, flat plateau. So strangely, the “bottom of the world” is actually pretty high!

Bundle up, because even in the summer the North Pole is cold. The average summer temperature is around 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 degrees Celsius). If you decide to go to the South Pole instead, you’ll get even colder. The average summer temperature at the South Pole is a chilly -18 degrees Fahrenheit (-28 degrees Celsius).

If you do make your trip in the summer, another thing you won’t see is nighttime. In the polar summer, the Sun never sets. Instead, it seems to circle all the way around the sky, staying close to the horizon, but never dipping out of sight. If you go in the winter, not only will you be much colder but you’ll be in the dark all day (or all night). In the wintertime the Sun never rises on the poles.

By the way, summertime at the North Pole is always wintertime at the South Pole, and winter in the north is summer in the south. Do you know why? If not, don’t worry. You’ll learn more about day and night at the poles in the months to come.

Round and Round

To not move with the Earth, you’ll need to turn as the Earth turns. Just how fast will you be moving? Since there are 24 hours in a day, you’ll need to turn in one full circle every 24 hours. Think about standing in one spot for 24 hours and turning all the way around exactly once. You can see that this motion will be verrrrrrrry slowwwww.

By contrast, if you were on the equator and wanted to not spin with the Earth, how fast would you need to move? One hundred miles an hour? Five hundred miles an hour? Not even close. Actually, you’d have to zip along at over 1,000 miles per hour, faster than the speed of sound, as the Earth speeds by below. Keeping up with polar motion is a whole lot easier.

There’s another problem, though. How will you know which direction to turn? If it’s a sunny day at the pole, it’s easy; just follow your shadow. As the Earth turns beneath you, your shadow points away from the Sun. Move your feet to keep facing your shadow, and presto! You’re not moving with the Earth!

Nature Calls

Eventually, you’ll probably need a bathroom break. When you ask a member of your crew for directions, she might smile and say, “Just walk south 100 yards.” On the North Pole, that won’t help you at all. Why?

At both the North Pole and the South Pole our ordinary map directions stop making sense. Suppose you stand on the South Pole. Your next step, no matter how you take it, must be to the north. From the South Pole, every direction is due north.

The same thing is true on the North Pole, but in reverse. When standing on the North Pole, you are always facing south, no matter which direction you turn. Instructions to walk a hundred yards to the south is both sort of funny and (if you really have to go) kind of mean.

Hold Still!

There’s one more problem with standing on the North Pole. Because you’re actually standing on floating ice, you can’t expect that ice to stay still. In fact, the ice over the North Pole drifts, moving several miles in just one day. To really stay in the same place, you’ll have to walk several miles in the opposite direction. This is getting harder and harder!

In the end, though, it really doesn’t matter; even if you’re not turning with the Earth, you’re still moving with the Earth around the Sun. That speed is a cool 67,000 miles per hour. And you’re moving with the Solar System around the Milky Way Galaxy at around 500,000 miles per hour. And you’re moving with the Milky Way . . . well, you get the idea. Standing still is hard!

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 4.3

For similar text that compares and contrasts the two polar regions, see The Arctic and Antarctica: Are They the Same, or Different?. The text is available for grades 1-2 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 2.4) and grades 3-5 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 4.7) in text, book, and electronic book formats.

Printable Files

Print the text-only version (pdf file) of this article

Print a foldable book version (pdf file) of this article.

Notes for assembling the book:

You can put this book together a couple of different ways. You can print out the pages, cut them in half and then order the pages back to front. Fold the stack in half and then staple the spine of the book. Pairs of pages can then be stapled or glued along the right edge.

You can also assemble the book as a foldable book. To assemble the book this way, print the six pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right hand corner: front page, page 20, page 4, page 16, page 8, and page 12. (The cover page should be on top and page 12 on the bottom). Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the six pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the three double-sided pages, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Book

A partnership with Content Clips has allowed us to provide electronic versions of our expository articles. Students can listen to the article as they read along on the screen.

These versions require Adobe Flash to view. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.
You will also need to turn off your pop-up blocker to use Content Clips.

In each book, the play button (in the top right hand corner) will play an audio file of the text on that page, while the pawprint (bottom right hand corner) will turn to the next page.

Please note that the audio files take a moment to load on each page. Once the file has been loaded, a play button will appear in the top right hand corner of the page. To minimize the delay on each page, you can open the file and read through the article first. Once each page’s audio has loaded, it remains loaded until you close the browser window. By preparing the article ahead of time, you can have students start at the beginning of the book and read without delays.

The Top (and Bottom) of the World electronic book

We’ve also created a literacy set with illustrated and electronic versions of “The Top (and Bottom) of the World,” as well as “The Arctic and Antarctica: Are They the Same, or Different?” – all in one convenient location!

Content Clips is an interactive web environment designed to help K-12 teachers supplement their curriculum with compelling online resources and activities. By creating a free account, you can save resources and activities (such as the electronic books) to your own collection. You can also create your own interactive activities to use in your classroom. If you follow the links to the electronic books listed above, you will enter the site as a guest and will not be able to save them to your own collection. If you wish to save these stories in your own collection, create an account, login, and then search for “The Top and Bottom of the World.”

Related Activities

Have your students use the first section of this article to identify characteristics of the North and South poles, recording information in a table. They can also compare and contrast using a Venn Diagram.

What Makes Day and Night? The Earth’s Rotation
Help your students understand the science concepts behind this story with this lesson plan on Earth’s rotation and day and night.

This article was written by Stephen Whitt. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email

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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