Learning About Antarctica’s Past

Did you know that Antarctica was once a warm place? It is hard to imagine, but millions of years ago, the coldest, driest, and windiest place on earth was actually ice-free and inhabited by trees, plants, dinosaurs, and small mammals.

Approximately 500 million years ago, Antarctica was part of a supercontinent called Gondwana. The large land mass included Australia, peninsular India, Africa, South America, and Antarctica.

Gondwana began to break apart about 180 million years ago. Antarctica became a separate continent approximately 120 million years ago and slowly drifted to the southern end of earth’s axis. Antarctica has been in a polar location for the last 100 million years.

Glaciers began to form on Antarctica about 38 million years ago, and the continent has been covered by ice for about the last 15 million years.

Why teach about Antarctica’s past?

A common misconception about the polar regions is that they have always been cold and isolated. The idea that Antarctica’s geographic location, climate, and ecology have changed dramatically over earth’s geologic history is a complex yet captivating concept.

While plate tectonics, the driving force behind this change, is first introduced at the middle school level, elementary students can understand that earth has changed throughout time.

According to the Earth and Space Science Content Standard of the National Science Education Standards, K-4 students should develop an understanding that the surface of the earth changes and that fossils provide evidence about the plants and animals that lived long ago and the nature of the environment at that time. (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.)

Teaching the Science

Teachers may first want to learn about Antarctica’s geologic history before introducing this topic to their students. Secrets of the Ice, a web site produced by Boston’s Museum of Science, describes Antarctica’s history and includes an animation showing the breakup of Gondwana. Windows to the Universe, a web site created by the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research (UCAR), includes an overview of earth’s history that is suitable for teacher background knowledge and upper elementary students.

Understanding Geologic Time, an interactive site produced by the University of California’s Museum of Paleontology, is designed for students in grades 5-10. It may supplement teacher background knowledge or be useful with advanced students. However, the site does break the complex topic of earth’s geologic history into nine key concepts. Of these nine, the first seven are useful when introducing these concepts to elementary students:

  • The Earth has a long, unique history.
  • The earth is billions of years old and a lot has happened in that time.
  • Putting events in order is important.
  • We can order events along a timeline.
  • The history of life has an order too.
  • Relative time is ordered in rocks.
  • Evidence of events in the earth’s history is found within the rocks.

We’ve divided these concepts into three sections that can serve as a basic organizational tool for a unit. For each, we’ve highlighted reference sites, lesson plans, and activities for use with your students.

Section One: Sequencing

  • Putting events in order is important.
  • We can order events along a timeline.

Helping students bridge new concepts to prior knowledge is an important teaching strategy. With Xpedition’s Autobiography Timeline, students type in important events from their lives. The tool creates a printable timeline of the events in chronological order, which helps students link their personal experience with a graphic representation. This tool could also be used in many different contexts – not just an autobiography!

ReadWriteThink also has an interactive timeline tool. The resulting timeline can be printed horizontally or vertically.

Section Two: Earth’s History

  • The earth has a long, unique history.
  • The earth is billions of years old and a lot has happened in that time.
  • The history of life has an order too.

Students can learn about earth’s geologic history using the Geologic Time page of UCAR’s Windows to the Universe web site. This site includes three reading levels (beginner, intermediate, and advanced) and a Spanish translation.

Students could create use the interactive tools to create timelines that illustrate earth’s history.

Section Three: Rocks and Fossils

  • Relative time is ordered in rocks.
  • Evidence of events in the earth’s history is found within the rocks.

At this point, students are ready to discuss and examine fossils. The Windows to the Universe web site provides content reading for students about sedimentary rocks, fossils, and other related information. Science and Children, a magazine of the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), has published two articles describing fossil lessons and activities. Teaching Through Trade Books: Fascinating Fossil Finds integrates two children’s books and hands-on fossil activities. Primary Paleontologists describes how a teacher created a paleontology dig for her second-grade students.

Going Further

Throughout this unit, students may begin to question why or how the earth has changed so dramatically. This may be an appropriate time to introduce the concepts of plate tectonics. Please remember that this topic is not commonly taught until middle school. Use this topic based on individual student interest, or to challenge advanced students.

Windows to the Universe contains content reading for students called Beginner Plate Tectonics. Students can try to re-create Pangea by cutting out and reassembling the continents. Students can also model the movement of earth’s plates using graham crackers and frosting.

Suggested Readings

We’ve chosen to highlight the two books used in NSTA’s Teaching Through Trade Books: Fascinating Fossil Finds. You may have your own favorites, or your media specialist may be able to help you find additional titles for use in your classroom.

Dragon in the Rocks: A Story Based on the Childhood of Early Paleontologist Mary Anning. Marie Day. Greey de Pencier. 1991. 32 pp. Recommended Ages: Primary, Elementary.

If You Are a Hunter of Fossils. Byrd Baylor. Illustrated by Peter Parnall. Aladdin. 1984. 32 pp. Recommended Ages: Primary, Elementary.

Literacy Connection

As we’ve discussed, an underlying concept is sequencing, or placing events in chronological order. Timelines are a common graphic organizer used in many contexts in the elementary classroom. Timelines help students organize information and can strengthen comprehension. An EDSITEment lesson, What is History? Timelines and Oral Histories is designed for teachers of grades K-2. In Sequencing: A Strategy to Succeed at Reading Comprehension, students in grades 3-5 read the story of Paul Bunyan and create a timeline with illustrations and sentences. Of course, the lesson plan could be adapted for use with any children’s book.


This article was written by Carol Landis. For more information, see the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears Contributors page. Email Carol at beyondpenguins@msteacher.org.

Copyright August 2011 – 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.