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Antarctica: A Unit Study

Antarctica: A Unit Study

Antarctica: A Unit Study

Norwegian Roald Amundsen left Oslo, Norway, on June 3, 1910, on board the ship Fram and reached the Antarctic continent on January 14, 1911. Setting up his base camp near the Bay of Whales, he began preparing for the push to the Pole. Already on the continent was an expedition led by British Royal Navy Officer Robert Falcon Scott. Their goal was the same — to become the first to reach the South Pole.

The Discovery of Antarctica

As far back as the time of Aristotle unknown lands were theorized south of the known world. These theories eventually led to the assumption of an unknown continent which was given the name Terra Australis Incognita (“Unknown Southern Land”). During the period of the 15th and 16th centuries both the Cape of Good Hope and Cape Horn were rounded by sea thus making it known that a southern land must not be connected to any known land mass to the north. In other words if Terra Australis existed, it must be a continent separated from all others by the vast oceans.

In 1772, British Captain James Cook commanding the ship Resolution led an expedition south. On January 17, 1773, the Antarctic Circle was crossed for the first time. Upon reaching latitude 67° 15′ S the expedition was stopped by pack ice and could no longer go any farther south. With winter approaching Captain Cook made his way north to New Zealand to overwinter in that area. Cook and his ship Resolution made another trip south in late 1773 and 1774. During this expedition Captain Cook and his crew crossed the Antarctic Circle two more times reaching as far south as 71° 10′ S on January 30, 1774, the farthest point south ever reached at the time. Cook concluded that if the Unknown Southern Land were discovered it would be almost impossible to reach and of very little economic value.

Finally in 1820, Captain Fabian von Bellingshausen of the Russian Navy, Captain Edward Bransfield of the British Navy, and Nathaniel Palmer, an American sealer, all claimed to have sighted the Antarctic mainland. The next year, on February 7, 1821, crew members from Captain John Davis’s ship, the Cecilia, may have been the first to actually set foot on the southern continent while looking for seals.  In 1909, Ernest Shackleton made the farthest trek toward the South Pole, the journey ending only 180 km from the Pole.  (He would later return to the continent on board the ill-fated Endurance.)

The Race to the Pole

Antarctica: A Unit Study

The stage was now set for the final push to the South Pole. Amundsen’s base camp was 96 km closer to the Pole than Scott’s. Even though Scott reached Antarctica 10 days ahead of Amundsen, the Amundsen expedition had an 11-day head start to the Pole. Amundsen, choosing what some might call primitive clothing and methods of traversing the harsh terrain, continued to increase his lead until finally reaching the South Pole on December 14, 1911, 34 days ahead of Scott.  The announcement was made to the world March 7, 1912.

Scott’s party, though suffering greatly from scurvy and malnutrition, finally reached the Pole on January 17, 1912. On the return journey all five members of Scott’s team died while all of Amundsen’s party returned alive.

It took 45 more years before the South Pole was reached again. On October 31, 1956, U.S. Navy Rear Admiral George Dufek, on board an R4D Skytrain aircraft, successfully landed along with the members of his team at the Pole.

Climate, Flora and Fauna

Antarctica is the fifth largest of the seven continents. Approximately 98% of the continent is covered with ice averaging one mile in thickness. Antarctica is technically classified as a desert, only receiving eight inches of precipitation a year. It is also the coldest continent, having the distinction of the coldest temperature ever recorded on the planet at -89.2° C on July 21, 1983. Temperatures range from -80° C to -90° C in the winter months in the interior of the continent to 5° C to 15° C along the coasts in the summer. The average temperature at the South Pole is a teeth-chattering -50° C.

During the six months of winter the sun never rises nor shines. In the summer the opposite is true; the sun never sets, but simply goes around and around, never disappearing from view.

Overall Antarctica claims the distinction of being, on average, the highest, windiest, coldest and driest of all the continents. It is easily seen that this is an extremely harsh environment, making it very difficult to support life of any kind.

The flora of Antarctica consists of about 125 species of plants known as bryophytes. In addition to these, there are two species of flowering plants which grow only for a very short period during the year. Over 1000 species of fungi are known to exist and over 200 species of algae. Several types of bacteria have been discovered living deep in glacial ice.

There are no large land animals native to the continent. The fauna consists primarily of microscopic mites, lice, and nematodes. Three known species of bird breed exclusively on the continent including the snow petrel. Sea life around Antarctica is quite abundant, with most of the species relying on phytoplankton (either directly or indirectly) for their existence. Types include Antarctic krill, various penguins, whales, seals and squids.

Current Day

Currently Antarctica is used primarily for scientific research and is regulated under the Antarctic Treaty of 1959. The human population on the continent varies from around 1,000 people in winter to around 5,000 people in summer residing at the various scientific research stations. McMurdo Station is the largest of these stations. Maintained by the United States, the station can house up to 1,000 people. Research includes climatological, geological, and other studies.

Throughout history Antarctica or Terra Australis Incognita was thought to exist. Vast resources were put to the task of discovering Antarctica.  Since its discovery very few men have stepped on its shores, but through their efforts the continent has been opened up to research and additional discoveries, some of which may directly affect you.


You’ll find resources for these suggestions below.

  • Read the accounts of von Bellingshausen, Bransfield and Palmer.  Who do you think made the first sighting of Antarctica?
  • Significant differences in the method of travel existed between the Amundson’s and Scott’s parties.  Investigate these differences, and the decisions made by each team.  Write a compare/contrast essay with your findings using this interactive at ReadWriteThink.
  • Make an Antarctica explorer’s notebook with an entry for each exploration team and their contribution.
  • Antarctica is primarily used for a variety of types of scientific research.  What makes a good scientist?
    • Select an area of research currently being conducted on the continent: astrophysics, biology, medicine, earth science, climate, glaciology, instrumentation, or another area of  your choice.
    • What types of research are being done in your selected area?
    • Develop general scientific criteria that you think would be required to reach a high standard of scientific research.  Ideas could include: additional data, amount of time of research, measurement error in collected data, modeling requirements, assumptions made, model validation techniques, biasing, and finding conclusions.

Further Investigation

Terra Australis Incognita
ThinkQuest exploring the continent from its first imaginings.  Follow the links through for the complete history of the exploration of Antarctica.

The Race to the South Pole
Terrific site that compares and contrasts the two racers.

Antarctica Time Line
Timeline of the major exploration events.

James Cook
Extensive biography

Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen
Extensive biography.

Nathaniel Brown Palmer
Bio from NASA.

Edward Bransfield
Brief biography.

Different Approaches to Antarctic Exploration
Discusses the differences between the Amundsen and Scott expeditions.

Ernest H. Shackleton
Extensive biography.

Robert Falcon Scott
Extensive biography.

Roald Amundsen
Extensive biography.

Cold Facts
Cold, dry, windy, icy, and info on the three South Poles!

Facts and figures from the CIA Factbook.

Virtual Tour – McMurdo Station, Antarctica
A look at Antarctica’s largest community.  Also includes a look at Scott’s hut.

Handbook of the Antarctic Treaty System
A system that allows countries to share the continent.

Research Objectives in Antarctica
Summary of the different areas of research and their purpose from NASA.

Emperor Penguin
Facts from Answers in Genesis.


Webcams from Antarctica
Six to choose from.

The Race to the Pole
Interactive exploring 12 key events.

Sizing Up Antarctica
Interactive that compares Antarctica to other countries and continents.

How Does Your State Compare
Comparison chart from PBS.

Witness the Biggest Seasonal Change on Earth
Interactive that explores the expansion of the continent with the ice of winter.

Food From the Freezer
Interactive exploring the Antarctica food chain.

Wind Chill Calculator
Enter the temperature and wind speed to calculate the effective temperature on Antarctica.

Blubber Gloves
Experiment to see how animals stay warm in Antarctica.

Antarctic Environment Board Game
To print and play.

Experiment from Discovery Channel exploring salt and icebergs.

Learn to Draw Penguins
Tutorial from Billy Bear.


“The Quest for the South Pole”
A chapter on the exploration of Antarctica from A Book of Discovery by M.B. Synge

The Heart of the Antarctic by Ernest H. Shackleton
Public domain work of his 1907-1909 expedition.  Enjoyable and interesting read.

Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard Atwater
Newbery Honor that has more to do with the North Pole than the South, but a fun tie-in nonetheless.

Unit Studies & Lesson Plans

Shackleton’s Antarctic Adventure Teacher’s Guide
Goes with the movie, but it is not necessary to see the movie to use the information, maps, timeline, and six activities.

Putting Antarctica on the Map
Lesson plan on mapping Antarctica from NASA.

Who’s Eating Who
Explores the Antarctic food chain.

Printables & Notebooking Pages

Descriptio Terræ Subaustralis
Wonderful map of Terra Australis as imagined in 1616.

Map of Antarctica
Suitable for notebook.

Antarctica Animal Printouts
From Enchanted Learning.

Explorer Notebooking Pages
4-page download from to help create an Antarctic explorers notebook.

Antarctica Notebooking Pages
Simple pages for copywork, narrations, or wrapping up.

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