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Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
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Most of you know that the Earth’s poles are cold, cold, cold. But did you know that there are hundreds of organisms especially adapted to living in these extremes? Did you know that the communities at the North and South poles are dramatically different from each other? Or that there is a difference between sea ice, ice shelves and icebergs? Read on to learn how the Poles gallery in the Sant Ocean Hall will answer all of these questions and more!

At the ends of the Earth, life thrives despite extremes of darkness and cold

Located beside the Shores and Shallows gallery (which highlights different kinds of coastal ecosystems around the world), the Poles area will take you to the ends of the earth and empower you with a broad understanding of life and physical conditions at both poles. You will learn not only about the poles themselves, but how ecology there affects, and is affected by, life around the planet.

Poles apart

We often think of the poles together, but life and the physical characteristics of the Arctic Ocean and Southern Ocean are vastly different. The Arctic Ocean is almost landlocked and is relatively calm because it’s largely covered by ice. Polar bears and walruses roam about. The Southern Ocean, with no surrounding land, is more turbulent. It supports more abundant and varied species because it has been isolated for 30 million years.

Maps of the Arctic Ocean and Southern Ocean
These maps of the Arctic Ocean (left) and Southern Ocean (right) show the dramatic differences between the poles.
Images courtesy of: The University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin
Arctic term
Arctic terns are well adapted for life at both poles.
Image courtesy of: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Adapting to cold and darkness

Organisms adopt food choices and survival techniques for these harsh climates. You will see comparisons of Arctic and Southern Ocean food webs and dramatic photos of animals found in each. You will also have a chance to learn about animals’ fascinating adaptations to extreme cold and lengthy darkness. For example, ice fish have antifreeze in their blood while Arctic terns fly from pole to pole, logging some 20,000 miles per year.

Polar bear
A polar bear is confronted by climate change in the form of less and less polar sea ice in its usual habitat.
Image courtesy of: NOAA

Do we affect the poles?

As you explore the Poles area of the exhibit, you will investigate the impact of rising temperatures and chemical fallout. You may not live near a pole, but you can still affect it with your everyday actions. Human activities may be affecting temperatures and critters at the both poles. For instance, chemicals rarely used in the Arctic are appearing in Arctic waters, transported there by wind and water. Once there, they move through the food webs, accumulating in increasing quantities in the tissues of Arctic animals and endangering their health.

Rising temperatures lead to melting icecaps. Melting glaciers can lead to rising sea level. This could have very real effects on coastal-living people worldwide.

Polar sea ice also helps to regulate Earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight back out to space. Less ice could lead to warmer temperatures because less sunlight is reflected. What will happen? Scientists make educated predictions (hypotheses), but only time will tell.

Tracking predictions

Polar bear populations are struggling in the face of warming temperatures and less ice from which to hunt. What will happen over the next 30 years? See what scientists predict and track those predictions against actual events over time. Are you ready yet to visit Earth’s extreme ends? Be sure to visit the Poles gallery to get a taste of how life (including humans) thrives in cold, darkness and ice.

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