Polar regions

Polar regions

Sea ice in the Weddell Sea, AntarcticaSea ice in the Weddell Sea, Antarctica Both the North Pole in the Arctic and the South Pole in Antarctica are bitterly cold places, covered with ice and snow all year round. The Arctic is quite different from Antarctica in one important way. It is not land at all, but an ocean covered by a vast, frozen cap of thick ice. Antarctica is a continent: beneath the ice, which is more than 3500 metres (11,500 feet) deep in places, there is land.

Polar bears play-fighting on Arctic pack icePolar bears play-fighting on Arctic pack ice


The Arctic, in the north, is an ocean: the Arctic Ocean. Most of it is permanently covered by an ice cap. The North Pole itself is not on land but on a floating sheet of ice, 2–3 meters (6–10 feet) thick—in the middle of the Arctic Ocean. In winter, pack ice forms around the edges of the ice cap. These are slabs of ice that are constantly being broken up and crushed together by the movement of the water underneath.

The aurora borealis, or Northern LightsThe aurora borealis, or Northern LightsGreenland and some Arctic islands are also ice-covered throughout the year. In other lands bordering the Arctic Ocean, the snow melts in late spring to reveal a treeless land called the tundra. Here the deeper soils are always frozen, but plants and flowers can grow in the shallow topsoil in summer, allowing a number of different kinds of animals to live there, such as reindeer (caribou) and musk oxen.

An Inuit family on a traditional qamutik (sled)An Inuit family on a traditional qamutik (sled)No country owns the North Pole or the Arctic Ocean surrounding it. Eight countries have lands that extend into the Arctic Circle (north of 66°33'N): Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Russia, Sweden and the USA. These countries sit on the Arctic Council, alongside representatives of Arctic native peoples. The Council deals with issues related to environmental protection, shipping, tourism and resources.

A map of the Arctic and surrounding landsA map of the Arctic and surrounding lands

Lake Fryxell in the Transantarctic MountainsLake Fryxell in the Transantarctic Mountains


Separated from the rest of the world by the Southern Ocean, the continent of Antarctica is about twice the size of Australia. Inhabited only by people who work at scientific research stations, it is a land of extremes. Nearly the whole landmass, about 98%, is covered by ice and snow all year round. In some parts, the ice is more than 3500 metres (11,500 feet) deep.

The Amundsen–Scott South Pole Research StationThe Amundsen–Scott South Pole Research StationAntarctica is the coldest, driest and windiest continent. It is actually a desert: it hardly ever rains or snows here. The coldest temperature ever recorded on Earth was –89.2°C (–128.6°F) at the Russian Vostok Station in 1983. Incredibly, millions of years ago, Antarctica was covered by tropical rainforest, inhabited by hundreds of different kinds of animals. Today, the only large animals that live there—whales, penguins and seals—live mostly in the surrounding waters, feeding on tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill.

Antarctica is the only one of the world's continents without a native human population. All human activity on Antarctica is governed by the international 1959 Antarctic Treaty. Although many countries have scientific research stations on the continent, no new territorial claims have been allowed since 1959 and the continent is considered politically neutral.

A map of AntarcticaA map of Antarctica

 Lloyd Jenkins

See also in Life

See also in History

See also in Earth

Aurorae, the northern or southern lights, are spectacular natural light displays in the Arctic or Antarctic skies. They are caused by the collision of high-energy particles from the Sun (known as the solar wind) with the Earth’s magnetic field in the high atmosphere.

The Poles were first reached by people at the beginning of the 20th century. An American, Robert Peary, was first to the North Pole in 1909, although his claim has been questioned ever since. Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen beat a British expedition led by Robert F. Scott to the South Pole in 1911.

The world’s largest glacier is the Lambert Glacier in East Antarctica. It is 100 km (60 miles) wide, more than 400 km (250 miles) long, and about 2500 m (8200 ft) deep.

If global warming continues at the current rate, the Arctic will be entirely free of sea ice during the summer before the year 2100.

The first child born in Antarctica was Emilio Marcos Palma, born in 1978 on the Argentine Base Esperanza, near the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. This civilian settlement has around 50 permanent residents. At least nine other babies have been born on the continent since.

There is only one sunrise and sunset a year at the North and South Pole. A polar day lasts for six months and a polar night lasts for six months.

Every year on Christmas Day, the Race Around The World is held at the South Pole. The course is 2.8 km (1.75 miles) long and crosses all the lines of longitude. You can race on foot, skis, by snowmobiles, or even on stilts.

The first woman to set foot at the South Pole was Lois Jones, a geologist at Ohio State University, who made it there in 1969.

The South Pole lies at an altitude of 2835 m (9301 ft).

More than 50% of the Earth’s fresh water is frozen in the Antarctic ice cap.

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