At a glance, Earth’s polar regions may seem like mirror
images located some 12,000 miles apart.
Both are vast, icy regions covering opposite ends of the
globe. Animal life is scarce, human inhabitants are few and
there is little to spark scientific imagination.
Closer examination, however, reveals many differences
as well as similarities between the Earth’s poles.
To the south, the continent of Antarctica is a landmass
roughly the size of the United States and Mexico combined.
It is depressed into the Earth’s crust by a sheet
of ice roughly 2 miles thick. A few thousand scientists and
support personnel, the continent’s recent and only human inhabitants, live
at a handful of research stations across the continent. Few
live there year-round.
The South Pole lies deep in the Antarctic interior, roughly
900 miles from the nearest U.S. scientific station on Ross
Island, near the Antarctic Coast.
To the north, an imaginary ring, known as the Arctic Circle,
defines the area surrounding the landless North Pole. The
region inside the Arctic Circle covers vast swathes of the
northern reaches of Canada, Greenland, Scandinavia and Russia.
It is therefore, home to human populations of varied size
and complexity when compared with their southern counterparts.
Scientists have begun collaborating with native inhabitants,
who have lived and subsisted in the region for millennia,
on observations of sea-ice thickness, animal populations
and other natural factors to build a holistic view of the
Arctic climate, past and present
Because the ice that covers the Arctic Ocean and the North
Pole breaks up and re-forms with the seasons, much of the
northern Arctic is inaccessible to most scientists for many
Through NSF's Office of Polar Programs (OPP), the agency plays a
key role in managing scientific endeavors in the polar regions.
In its capacity as chair of the Interagency Arctic Research
Policy Committee (IARPC), NSF acts as the lead agency for
implementing Arctic research policies. NSF also manages the
U.S. Antarctic Program, which coordinates almost all U.S.
science on the continent, including research carried out
by other federal agencies.
OPP supports research in a range of disciplines, from biology
to astrophysics and from social science to oceanography.
The polar regions provide scientists with immense "natural
laboratories" to study some of the most basic questions.
did the universe begin? - Telescopes
at the South Pole and balloon flights around Antarctica
allow scientists to conduct long-term observations
of the origins of the universe and of some of its
smallest constituent particles.
the global climate changing? How and why? -
Scientists cross the Antarctic ice sheet by tractor-train
to sample ice that holds clues to the climate of
the past 200 years, while at the North Pole, a string
of instruments as long as Mt. Rainer is high, tracks
ongoing changes in theArctic Ocean.
are the limits of life in extreme environments? -
Microbes may thrive at the South Pole, despite bitter
cold, darkness and extreme doses of ultraviolet radiation,
while other microbes may live in frozen lakes. How
do they survive? And what can we learn from these
might provide wider biological insights?