Polar Sciences Collection

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.

  • Antarctic Ice: Sea Level Change

    What would happen if a portion of the Antarctic Ice Sheet were to melt? This video segment from NOVA uses animations to show the effect of a 6-meter sea-level rise on coastal cities across the world. 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
  • Bowhead Whaling and Its Impact

    This interactive activity, adapted from material provided by the ECHO partners, presents images and text from the history of whaling in the North Atlantic Ocean and in the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort Seas in the Arctic. It looks at both Native Iñupiaq and commercial whaling, and introduces a landmark study conducted by John Bockstoce and Daniel Botkin. The study looked at changes in whale populations during the height of commercial whaling from 1849–1914.

    Grades: 6-9
  • Earth's Cryosphere: Antarctica

    NASA satellite imagery provides an overview of the cryosphere in the Antarctic. Learn about Antarctic features such as clouds, glaciers, ice streams, ice shelves, and icebergs. In addition, explore how rising temperatures affect the region, for example by increasing the number of meltwater ponds, which can lead to the weakening and collapse of ice shelves. Finally, see seasonal changes in sea ice and learn about their influence on ocean circulation. This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Contaminants in the Arctic Human Population

    This video segment adapted from LOKE Films and the Arctic Monitoring and Assessment Programme describes how people in the Arctic are exposed to high levels of toxic contaminants such as mercury and PCBs. Learn how persistent organic pollutants travel through the food chain and pose serious health risks to humans who consume contaminated animals. Examine how different populations are affected, and how people who eat traditional foods high on the marine food chain (such as polar bear, seal, and some types of whale) are most at risk.

    Grades: 5-12
  • Earth’s Albedo and Global Warming

    This interactive activity adapted from NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey illustrates the concept of albedo—the measure of how much solar radiation is reflected from Earth's surface. The balance between the amount of solar radiation reflected and absorbed by Earth's surface plays an important role in regulating global temperature. Learn about how Earth materials, such as snow, ice, and water, differ in their ability to reflect and absorb the Sun's energy and how melting polar ice creates a positive feedback loop that accelerates global warming. Investigate how the presence of pollution, such as soot, lowers the albedo of ice and further increases melting. In addition, observe the decline in Arctic sea ice cover from 1979–2007 and the effect of melting ice on sea levels.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Drilling to Antarctica’s Rock Core

    In this video adapted from ANDRILL, a student, a teacher, and a geologist describe a research project in Antarctica designed to answer questions about how our planet has changed over time and predict how it might look in the future. Drilling through an ice sheet and into the sea floor hundreds of meters below, ANDRILL project scientists collect long core samples of sedimentary rock. They then analyze the samples to learn what they can about the environmental conditions that existed when the rock layers were formed.

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

    Grades: 3-8
  • 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
  • Fastest Glacier

    Western Greenland's Jakobshavn Glacier, dubbed the world's fastest-flowing glacier is featured in this video segment adapted from NOVA scienceNOW. Scientists attempt to explain why this glacier is moving at a rate that far exceeds the average speed of glaciers and is contributing to a rise in global sea level. Their explanation revolves around the recent discovery that increased meltwater caused by global warming flows down holes in the glacier. Once it reaches the underlying rock, the theory goes, this water actually lubricates and lifts the glacier, allowing it to glide downhill with decreased resistance.

    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 Movement (Part 1 of 2)

    With more than 29 million cubic kilometers (7 million cubic miles) of ice and snow, the Antarctic Ice Sheet is so massive that its weight depresses the underlying crust by 900 meters (nearly 3,000 feet). New snow that collects on the ice sheet's surface causes the ice beneath it to spread out and move along the slope of the land. In this video segment adapted from NOVA, a team of glaciologists carves into one glacier on the East Sheet to monitor the nature and speed of its movement.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Studying Antarctic Seals

    Wildlife ecologist Jen Mannas talks about an ongoing study involving Weddell seals in Antarctica, in this video segment adapted from the Women Working in Antarctica website. Mannas and her team are documenting the reproductive history of females and the development of their pups. The video shows the different methods used to weigh the seals, and explains how important weaning mass is to pup survival. This is one of the longest-running research studies done on long-lived mammals, and scientists like Mannas hope that some of what they learn about these seals can be applied to other wildlife species.

    Grades: 3-12
  • Global Warming Threatens Shishmaref

    Learn about how global warming and changing sea ice conditions affect the Alaska Native village of Shishmaref, in this video segment adapted from Spanner Films. Hear firsthand accounts about how climate change has altered the condition, extent, and freeze-up of sea ice. Understand how the local subsistence way of life relies on the presence of sea ice. Learn about how houses were relocated after a strong storm in 1997 and how erosion continues to threaten the village.

    Grades: 6-12
  • Solar Wind's Effect on Earth

    The Sun produces a solar wind — a continuous flow of charged particles — that can affect us on Earth. It can, for example, disrupt communications, navigation systems, and satellites. Solar activity can also cause power outages, such as the extensive Canadian blackout in 1989. In this video segment adapted from NASA, learn about solar storms and their effects on Earth. This video is available in both English and Spanish audio, along with corresponding closed captions.

    Grades: 3-12
  • 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
  • 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
  • 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
  • Global View of the Seasons

    By measuring subtle differences in light that result from varying concentrations of plant life around the world, scientists are able to better understand Earth. These false-color images provided by the Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-view Sensor (SeaWiFS) Project provide visual representations of the concentrations of plant life in the oceans and on land. In this interactive activity produced for Teachers' Domain, learn how the distribution of Earth's vegetation changes over the seasons.

    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
  • 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
  • Inuit Observations of Climate Change

    This video adapted from the International Institute for Sustainable Development profiles the Arctic Inuit community of Sachs Harbour and its collaboration with scientists studying climate change. Changes in the land, sea, and animals are readily apparent to the residents of Sachs Harbour—many of whom hunt, trap, and fish—because of their long-standing and intimate connection with their ecosystem. Scientists from a climate change study project interview the residents and record their observations. The scientists can use these firsthand accounts along with their own collected data to deepen their understanding of climate change in the polar region.

    Grades: 6-12