Antarctica: King of Cold

This nonfiction article is written for use with upper-elementary students (grades 4-5). In this article, students learn about the climate differences between the Arctic and Antarctica and why Antarctica is so much colder than the Arctic. The article includes two “experiments to try,” which are perfect for a learning center or at-home enrichment.

Two modified versions are available for students in grades K-1 and grades 2-3, or any student needing a simplified version. As always, consider the reading level and needs of your students when selecting a version for classroom use.

At each grade level, the article is available in three forms. 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.

The glossary also provides an opportunity for students to build weather and climate vocabulary. Related Activities provide additional opportunities for vocabulary development and resources for studying the weather and climate of the polar regions.

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!

Antarctica: King of Cold

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 5.3

The North Pole and the South Pole have a few things in common. If you stand at either pole and look straight up, you’ll be looking at the same spot in the sky all day long. That’s not true anywhere else on the Earth; only at the poles does a line straight up point at the same spot all day (or all night) long.

That’s not the only thing the North Pole and the South Pole have in common. They’re both cold! Yes, they are, but the South Pole is much colder than the North Pole. When it comes to weather and climate, the things that make the poles different might be more interesting and important than the things that make them the same.

The Colder Pole

And different they are. For starters, Antarctica is much colder. The average winter temperature in Antarctica is -76 degrees Fahrenheit. A “warm” summer day is around 22 degrees below zero! Even the coldest winter night at the North Pole isn’t as cold as the sunniest summer day at the South Pole.

Why should that be? First of all, the North Pole is over an ocean. Believe it or not, even cold ocean water holds a lot of heat. As this ocean water changes to ice, it keeps the temperature from falling too far.

How? Believe it or not, freezing actually slows down dropping temperatures. As water gets colder, its temperature drops lower and lower, until it begins to freeze. Then, during freezing, the temperature stays the same. It’s as if the water said, “Whoa! No more temperature drops ’til I’m finished freezing!” Until all the water turns to ice, the temperature of the ice and water mixture doesn’t get any lower. And there’s a lot of water at the North Pole!

On the other hand, the South Pole is on the continent called Antarctica. Not only is the South Pole on land, it’s on very high land. While the North Pole is just a few meters above sea level, the South Pole is almost 2400 meters (about a mile and a half) high. The greater your distance from sea level, the colder the air around you becomes. (Think of the snowy tops of high mountain peaks.) This extra height helps keep the South Pole extra cold.

Weather patterns make the South Pole colder too. Even though the North Pole is over ocean water, land isn’t that far away. Warmer air that gathers over Russia or Canada floats over the North Pole and warms it up.

But Antarctica is the most isolated continent on the planet. It is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. That makes a big weather difference. The ocean sloshes around Antarctica, blocking the path of warmer water from the north.

In the sky, a sort of an ocean of cold, dry air does something similar. The air circles Antarctica again and again, just like the ocean water. This circle of very cold air keeps out any warmer northern air that might venture near.

No Camels, But Still a Desert

Think about what that circle of unchanging air means. First of all, the air gets very cold. But it also gets very dry. Here’s why: as the temperature drops, any moisture in the air turns to rain or snow. But the air over Antarctica lost any moisture it had long ago. There’s simply no moisture left to lose. The result is some of the coldest and driest air on Earth. It’s that dry air that turns Antarctica into a desert.

That’s right. Antarctica isn’t only the coldest place on Earth; it’s also one of the world’s driest deserts. It might sound strange to call a land of frozen water a desert, but that’s just what Antarctica is. Because the air rarely changes, the skies are almost always clear, and new snow almost never falls. Of course the old snow (which long ago became ice) never melts. As a result, the ice on Antarctica is some of the oldest ice on the planet.

White Out

Because it is covered in ice, Antarctica is white. The ice reflects most of the sun’s light right back into space before it has a chance to heat anything. The Arctic is mostly white, too, but there are more patches of bare land or water to absorb heat from the sun.

The cold and dry climate of Antarctica makes it one of the toughest places on Earth to live. There aren’t many animals there. Marine mammals, like whales and seals, only stay for a short time. Sea birds like penguins live on the Antarctic Peninsula, where the weather isn’t quite so terrible. The largest animal that lives year-round in the center of the continent is a tiny insect called a midge.

The midge is around twelve millimeters (about half an inch) long, and is a type of fly without wings (making it a fly that doesn’t fly!). The tiny midge may be the king of beasts in this cold and dry place. But Antarctica itself is the real king – the King of Cold!

Experiments to try:

1) Measure the temperature of water in a freezer. Find out how the temperature changes:

a) As the water cools but before it changes to ice.
b) As the water changes to ice
c) After all the water is frozen

2) Find out how color affects temperature.

a) find two identical cans
b) wrap one of the cans in black paper
c) wrap the other can in white paper
d) hold both cans under a bright light and measure the temperature change inside each can


bird – an animal with feathers

climate – long-term patterns of weather

continent – a large body of land surrounded by oceans and other continents

desert – a very dry area

evaporate – change from a liquid to a vapor or gas

freeze – change from a liquid to a solid

insect – an animal with six legs

isolated – far away from others of its kind

mammal – an animal that feeds its young milk

ocean – a large and very deep body of salt water

reflect – to bounce back light

temperature – a measure of how much heat something has

weather – day to day changes in conditions

Modified versions of this text are available for grades K-1 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 1.8) and grades 2-3 (Flesch-Kincaid Reading Level = 3.7). See below for links to all three versions in text, book, and electronic book forms.

Printable Files

Print a text-only version of this article for grades:
Print a foldable book version of this article for grades:

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 books this way, print the four pages and align the document pages so that the following book page numbers are in the lower right-hand corner: front page, page 6, page 2, and page 4. (The cover page should be on top and page 4 on the bottom). Set your copier to copy single pages into double pages and run the four document pages in the order specified. Cut along the dotted line in the center of the double-sided page, place the book pages in order, fold, and staple along the spine.

Electronic Books

Antarctica: King of Cold

Grades K-1 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 2-3 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

Grades 4-5 Electronic Book
Articulate Version
Flash Version

In the Articulate version, click on the small arrow at the top of each page for the narration. The large arrow at the right will take you to the next page.

In the Flash version, 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. If you don’t have Flash, you can download it for free from the Adobe web site.

The books also include vocabulary words (highlighted in blue). Students can click on these words to hear their definitions. Definitions are also available in a glossary at the end of each book.

We’ve also created a literacy set that includes all of the illustrated books and electronic books in one convenient location!

Related Activities

The lessons and activities featured in our Science and Literacy article, “Hands-On Activities for Investigating Weather and Climate,” can be used in conjunction with this nonfiction article. The web sites and animations listed in the “Compare and Contrast Weather and Climate” and “Polar Weather and Climate” sections of that article are particularly helpful when studying the weather and climate of the polar regions

This article was written by Stephen Whitt. For more information, see the Contributors page. Email Kimberly Lightle, Principal Investigator, with any questions about the content of this site. The content of this page was updated in June 2020.

Copyright June 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.

2 thoughts on “Antarctica: King of Cold

  1. I love this article but was not able to print a copy of the 4th – 5th grade level. Both links had the book. While the book is great, I’d like to get a copy of the article only.

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