Sunday, 19 June 2016

Questions about Antarctica (1): what do you know?

Many thanks to students from Freyberg High School and St Peter's College, both in Palmerston North, for helping start me off on my Antarctic project. I was there last week for some (pre-arranged) school visits, but they had checked out my author Facebook page and already found out about my Antarctic adventure.

At the end of each session, I asked the students to get into groups and answer three questions for me:
What do you know about Antarctica?
What don't you know, or what would you like to find out?
Would you like to go there? Why or why not?

There was a huge buzz of conversation around the hall as they talked about their ideas. Of the 100 replies I collected, most came from Year 9 and 10 students, aged 13 and 14. There were many great responses and some very interesting results!
So what did I find out?

To start with, I think there must be an automatic reply button to questions about Antarctica. (Try it on people you know and see if I'm right.) The first three topics that come to mind  are overwhelmingly:

  • cold! (89 replies)
  • penguins (49 replies)
  • snow and ice (34 replies)

Degrading iceberg, Cape Hallett.
Photographer: Danielle O'Keefe. 

Adelie penguins on ice and water.
Photographer: Rebecca Roper-Gee

What also surprised me was what these students didn’t mention. Only two knew that Sir Ed Hillary had been to the Pole - in fact, only one mentioned the South Pole at all (calling it the southern pole) and not many said anything about where Antarctica is (below NZ at the bottom of the world) or how beautiful it is (amazing views / it looks majestic / shiny and bright)

Only a couple knew for certain that polar bears don't live in Antarctica, whereas as many thought they did as mentioned killer whales. Some thought that dogs lived there. Three or four students referred to the aurora (once misnamed the northern lights). None mentioned any of the early explorers like Scott or Shackleton. None mentioned the Erebus tragedy of 1979.  

Scott Base sign with aurora at night.
Photographer: Martin Meldrum

But I also got these great insights from students who knew a bit more:

  • There’s a place in Antarctica that is an ice free desert. The climate there is similar to Mars and only microorganisms live there. Scientists plan to research it to use in models for life on Mars.
  • The weather changes drastically and during half the year it’s in complete darkness and the other half it’s in complete light.
  • Antarctica is melting from climate change and the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere.

Northern Dry Valleys, 1995-1996

(Thanks to the ADAM website for these great photos.) 


  1. Really appreciate you helping kiwi kids learn more about this very special place. How did those who knew little respond to the new ideas others shared?
    You might want to look for a japanes movie made some years ago, called "Antarctica", which has the sound trach by Vangelis. In Japanes w. English subtitles.
    I'll pop back and giove you more details on the movie so you can find it more easily.

    1. Thanks for your interest! They were fascinated by the wildlife, surprised to find out that some things they thought they knew weren't true (like the fact that there are no polar bears) and very interested in the practical aspects of what to eat and how to stay warm. I was surprised too that so many of them didn't want to go there just because it's so cold, but I wonder now if they thought you would be freezing cold all the time, with no warm clothes or warm places to live!

  2. Antarctica (1983)

    Nankyoku monogatari (original title)

    2h 23min | Adventure, Drama | 23 July 1983 (Japan)

    Two Japanese scientists, Ushioda and Ochi, develop a bond with their sled dogs while on an expedition in Antarctica. Ushioda and Ochi eventually leave Antarctica, only to return to search for the dogs inadvertently marooned there.
    - Written by Petr Meretyk

    1. Thanks! I've heard about the movie, and this great story about the sled dogs, but haven't seen it - will try to track it down!