Polar Sciences

Expand/Collapse Polar Sciences


Earth's polar regions may seem remote, but they are an integral part of the entire Earth system. For example, pollution from other areas affects Arctic and Antarctic ecosystems, and changes in the icy landscapes of the polar regions may influence global ocean circulation patterns and accelerate climate change. The fourth International Polar Year (IPY) was a 2007–2008 international campaign to advance polar science and better understand global climate change through an interdisciplinary approach. Learn about the importance of studying the poles through these media resources, adapted from a variety of sources. Explore the polar regions, the changes they are experiencing, and their connections to the rest of the world.

  • Tracking Polar Bears

    In this interactive activity adapted from the USGS Alaska Science Center, investigate the migration patterns of polar pears. Radio and satellite data show changes in the extent of Arctic sea ice during the year and the corresponding movements of a polar bear. In addition, compare the paths taken by four polar bears during the same year.

    Grades: K-8
  • Taking the Earth's Temperature

    This video segment from FRONTLINE/NOVA: "What's Up with the Weather?" follows groups of climate researchers collecting temperature data from a wide range of locations in an effort to determine the current rate of global climate change relative to climate shifts of the distant past.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Polar Bears and Climate Change

    This video from the World Wildlife Fund addresses the primary threat to polar bears in the Arctic today: global warming. Scientists monitor the effects of climate change on the large predator's activities and range, study the bears' physical condition, and explore why the melting of glaciers and reduction of sea ice in the Arctic region may ultimately have dire consequences for the polar bears.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Arctic Tundra

    This video segment from Wild Europe: "Wild Arctic" describes some of the plants and animals that make up the tundra biome, and captures the harshness of the treeless arctic environment and the adaptations organisms use to survive a year's worth of seasons there.

    Grades: 3-12
  • Global Warming: Graphs Tell the Story

    This set of graphs from the Web site for the NOVA/FRONTLINE Special Report: "What's Up with the Weather?" reveals how atmospheric carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxides from the burning of fossil fuels have climbed over time. Unfortunately, we don't yet know what negative effects these increases might have.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Earth System: Satellites

    While the Moon is Earth's only natural satellite, there are thousands of artificial satellites circling our planet for navigation, communications, entertainment, and science. These satellites are an integral part of our everyday life, and they provide a source for scientific data unavailable from Earth's surface. This video segment adapted from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center describes some of the different kinds of satellites that orbit Earth.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions. 

    Grades: 6-12
  • Satellites Orbiting Earth

    In recent years, there has been a push to better understand how Earth works as a system — how land, oceans, air, and life all interact. Satellites in orbit around Earth are a fast and efficient way of gathering remotely sensed data about the planet as a whole. This animation adapted from NASA shows the orbital paths of the satellites in the Earth Observing System.

    Grades: 3-12
  • Mountain of Ice: If the Ice Melts

    This interactive adapted from NOVAportrays what might happen to world coastlines if entire sections of the Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt. By comparing present-day coastline positions with those from the peak glacial advance 20,000 years ago, you can begin to appreciate how much water is contained in glaciers, the importance of monitoring their condition, and the impact accelerated global warming could one day have on sea level.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Climate Change

    Weather is notoriously unpredictable. From one moment to the next, any of dozens of atmospheric variables can change to create a new weather event. In contrast, climate descriptions, which identify average and normal temperatures and precipitation levels, tend to be perceived as stable, at least over time scales that humans can easily relate to. However, that hasn't always been the case. This video segment adapted from NOVA describes climate data that suggest the Earth has undergone dramatic climate shifts in relatively short spans of time.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Arctic Climate Perspectives

    This video, adapted from material provided by the ECHO partners, shows the changes now happening in Barrow, Alaska, due to global warming. The Iñupiaq people who live in Barrow present their observations of these changes based on their centuries-old knowledge of their environment, and describe how these changes are already affecting their lives. Scientists who have come to Barrow to study climate change also offer their perspective.

    Grades: 6-9
  • Antarctic Ice: Sea Level Change

    In 1995 and again in 2002, large fragments of the Larsen Ice Shelf sheared away from Antarctica's West Ice Sheet. In the second event, an area the size of Rhode Island collapsed from the sheet. Although these dramatic events did not add to the modest 8-cm rise in global sea level experienced over the past 50 years, much of the predicted 25-cm (or greater) rise in the next century may result from the incremental melting and growing instability of the world's glaciers. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, learn what might happen to the global sea level if atmospheric warming precipitated the collapse of Antarctica's West Sheet.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Antarctica: Sea Ice

    Each winter, the ice apron that surrounds the continent of Antarctica expands from its summertime area of about 4 million square kilometers (1.5 million sq mi) to 20 million square kilometers (7.5 million sq mi). Although its presence has proven treacherous for would-be explorers and commercial shippers, sea ice provides essential hunting, feeding, and breeding habitats to polar bears, seals, and penguins. It also helps regulate temperature, moisture, and ocean salinity worldwide. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, learn how sea ice forms and how its seasonal fluctuation dramatically changes the continent of Antarctica.

    Grades: K-12
  • Greenland Ice Sheet Project 2: A Record of Climate Change

    An increase of one degree Fahrenheit in average global temperature sounds innocuous enough. Daily high and low temperatures can fluctuate far more than that on an average day. However, changes to global averages can alter conditions that most of us take for granted. This interactive activity adapted from materials from the Wright Center for Science Education at Tufts University describes how climatologists obtain and interpret evidence from the Greenland Ice Sheet in an effort to piece together a picture of Earth's distant climate history.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Great Ocean Conveyor Belt: Part II

    A very important but little-known network of currents constantly circulates the water in Earth's oceans. What's more, these currents redistribute heat, moving it from the tropics toward the poles, and keeping some regions far more habitable than they would be otherwise. In this audio segment from National Public Radio, scientists discuss the hypothesis that global warming might be causing the Great Ocean Conveyor to slow, and may ultimately cause it to shut down.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Great Ocean Conveyor Belt: Part I

    The oceans are in constant flux. The movement of ocean water is readily observable in the rise and fall of the tides and the continual lapping of waves along the coastlines of continents and islands. Less obvious is the network of currents that constantly circulates ocean water from one side of the globe to another. This image from GRID-Arendal illustrates the path of the great ocean conveyor belt, also known as the thermohaline conveyor.

    Grades: 9-12
  • Global Water Distribution

    Earth is covered by water, hence its nickname: the Blue Planet. This interactive resource adapted from Oxford University Press reveals just how much water is saline -- the kind that fills the oceans -- and how much is fresh water. As you explore these statistics further, you may be surprised to learn just how little water is available to share among Earth's six billion human inhabitants, not to mention all the other organisms that rely on fresh water for their survival.

    Grades: 3-12
  • Glaciers

    Glaciers, which cover about 10 percent of Earth's land surface and hold between two and three percent of its water, are found on every continent except Australia. This interactive activity adapted from the National Park Service offers a comprehensive introduction to glaciers. By exploring the different sections, users will learn where and why glaciers form, what influences their growth and decline, and how an apparently solid mass appears to flow like a river.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Earth System: Ice and Global Warming

    Scientific evidence strongly suggests that different regions on Earth do not respond equally to increased temperatures. Ice-covered regions appear to be particularly sensitive to even small changes in global temperature. This video segment adapted from NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center details how global warming may already be responsible for a significant reduction in glacial ice, which may in turn have significant consequences for the planet.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions. 

    Grades: 6-12
  • Earth as a System

    Earth is a complex, evolving body characterized by ceaseless change. To understand Earth on a global scale means using a scientific approach to consider how Earth's component parts and their interactions have evolved, how they function, and how they may be expected to further evolve over time. This visualization adapted from NASA helps explain why understanding Earth as an integrated system of components and processes is essential to science education.

    This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions. 

    Grades: 6-12
  • Antarctic Ice Movement: Part II

    For the most part, an ice sheet moves down slope slowly because the ice is in direct contact with underlying bedrock. In some places, however, ice races along much faster than the rest of the sheet. These areas of fast-moving flow, called ice streams, are believed to be caused by a thin, lubricating layer of water and mud between the ice and the land. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, a team of scientists seeks evidence to support their hypothesis that atmospheric warming—either now or in the past—may explain why water has formed beneath the ice sheet.

    Grades: 6-12