Teaching in the Exhibition
The Race to the End of the Earth exhibition uses artifacts, models, maps, interactives, videos, and more to help students learn about early polar exploration and the challenges of survival in Antarctica. This guide divides the exhibition into seven numbered areas, which correspond to the map and to the text below.
The mean annual temperature at the South Pole is -49°C (-56°F), an environment so harsh that a small misstep can spell disaster. A century ago the margin of safety was even smaller.
- Theater: Invite students to watch the video, which sets the stage for the race to the Pole.
Just beyond the theater, students can "Meet the Men." As students go through the exhibition, encourage them to pay close attention to the decisions the British and Norwegian teams made about clothing, transportation, and timing, and to the consequences of those choices.
2. First Glimpses
From the time of the early Greeks, people proposed the existence of a southern continent, perhaps habitable, perhaps a howling wasteland. Two hundred and fifty years ago men began braving the world's roughest waters to see for themselves.
- Interactive table map, historical maps and paintings, and ship's log: Invite students to see how early maps and globes depicted the mysterious continent, and to track the first journeys southward. Ask students to imagine what it was like to be an explorer in the 18th or 19th century. What's surprising about what these early voyagers knew (and didn't know) about geography?
(Answers may include: Antarctica was long thought to be as large and livable as Asia. It wasn't until the mid-1800s that ships got close enough to observe the ice-covered land.)
3. The Race Begins
As the exploration of Antarctica captured the imagination of the British public, they clamored for Naval officer Robert Falcon Scott to claim the final frontier: the South Pole. At the same time, but in secret, veteran Arctic explorer Roald Amundsen set his sights on the prize for his native Norway.
- Cross-sections, models, and photos of the Fram and the Terra Nova and objects from the voyages: Have students examine and contrast the two vessels and their crews. How do the motivations of the two leaders compare?
(Answers may include: A career naval officer, Scott knew that he would be well paid and that the hazardous journey might earn him a promotion. He was also keen to carry out scientific investigations. Amundsen's lifelong dream was to be a professional polar explorer and he trained steadily for it.)
4. Two Teams, One Goal
In January, 1911, the two parties set up very different base camps on opposite edges of the Ross Ice Shelf. There they spent ten months — four in utter darkness — and planned their trips to the Pole.
- Antarctica's Seasons wall: Students can learn about Earth's axis and how it affects seasons in each hemisphere. Ask students why Antarctica's seasons resemble one long day and one long night.
(Answer: The Earth has seasons because its axis is tilted and because it revolves around the Sun once every 365 days. During the austral summer, the Earth's tilt exposes most of the southern polar region to the Sun's rays all of the time — even though Earth is rotating daily on its axis. Six months later, during the austral winter, the South Pole is perpetually dark because it is now maximally tilted away from the Sun, while the North Pole soaks up twenty-four hours of sunlight a day. Consequently, weeks of sunrise precede the austral summer, and winter follows weeks of sunset.)
How does this affect the planning of an expedition?
(Answers may include: Expeditions had to be carried out during the brief summer's light and relative warmth, before the long, frigid winter set in.)
Captain Scott spent much of the Antarctic winter recording his impressions of the continent, writing letters, and working out a strategy for reaching the Pole.
©Herbert G. Ponting/Library of Congress
Replica of Scott's hut: Have students consider what these objects reveal about overwintering in Antarctica, and how Scott and his team put this time to use.
(Answers may include: In addition to planning and preparing for the journey to the Pole, they spent time listening to music on the gramophone, playing chess, writing and drawing, giving lectures and attending Sunday church services led by Scott. Along with bunks, kitchen, and dining tables, the room contained scientific laboratories, a darkroom, and a player piano. The scientists on the British team researched weather, wildlife, and geology of this unexplored land's.)
Polar clothing: Have students compare the way the two teams were outfitted. Ask them what informed each team's decisions.
(Answers may include: During the race to the South Pole, the British team relied mainly on woolen clothing. The Norwegians dressed in furs, based on Inuit designs that Amundsen had studied during his time in the Arctic.)
Compass interactive: Invite students to manipulate the compass. What does it show about the response of the needle to the magnetic pole?
(Answer: In Antarctica, because the magnetic pole is so close, a compass needle will dip down instead of pointing north.)
Replica of Amundsen's carpentry workshop: Ask students to look at the way the Norwegians spent the dark winter months. How does this network of under-snow tunnels compare to Scott's winter quarters?
(Answers may include: Both teams brought pre-fabricated wooden huts. Amundsen's smaller one, used for sleeping and eating, was connected by tunnels to what he described as "a whole underground village" that was insulated by the snow.)
5. To the Pole!
The austral summer (December to March) with its long days and somewhat warmer temperatures, was the only window for the grueling round-trip journey of 2,900 kilometers (1,800 mi). The explorers knew that every hour would count.
- Scott vs. Amundsen wall panels and Race Timeline: Students can compare factors such as transportation, clothing, food, and shelter that each team relied upon. Ask students which proved the most effective for surviving, and succeeding, under the harsh conditions. What logistics helped the team that reached the Pole first?
(Answers may include: Amundsen used dogs to pull the sleds, while his men skied alongside, or even rode. The British used experimental motorized vehicles and horses, neither of which performed well in the extreme cold. Once up on the polar plateau, the men pulled the sleds themselves, as planned.)
“Man-hauling” required men strapped into harnesses to drag heavy sleds. Henry “Birdie” Bowers said, “I have never ... so nearly crushed my inside into my backbone by the everlasting jerking with all my strength.”
©Scott Polar Research Institute
Hauling sleds interactive: Students can push a model sled across two different surfaces. Ask them how temperature affects the task.
(Answer: As the temperature sinks below -20°C (-4°F), friction no longer heats the snow enough to create or maintain a liquid film. As a result, the ice surface feels rougher and the sled becomes harder to pull.)
6. Back From the Pole
After reaching the Pole on December 14, 1911, one team hurried back to base camp. In contrast, the other team took a full month longer to reach their goal. Exhausted and starving, the men were still struggling back as the light began to dim and the weather to turn bitter cold.
Reaching the South Pole on January 17/18, 1912, the Scott party found the three-man tent the Norwegians had left behind.
©Library of Congress
- Race Timeline (cont'd.): What factors contributed to Amundsen's team's return to base camp 10 days ahead of schedule? What led to the death of Scott and his men?
(Answers may include: Better provisioned and in better health, the Norwegian team traveled fast and escaped the onset of winter. Having set out on their return trip a month later, Scott and his men soon ran into stormy weather. They found themselves increasingly short of food and fuel, and slowed during the last leg of the journey as temperatures dropped rapidly.)
7. Antarctica Today
Flags in front of the new Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station, the latest U.S. scientific station at the southernmost end of the Earth.
©Dwight Bohnet/National Science Foundation
Forty-eight nations are parties to the Antarctic Treaty agreeing to peaceful, scientific exploration of the continent. The continent's only long-term occupants — 4,000 in summer, 1,000 in winter — are researchers, students, and support staff.
- Life in Antarctic Seas video: Ask students to describe the marine environment around Antarctica, the organisms that live there, and their adaptations.
(Answers may include: The ocean around Antarctica teems with life. The top predators are marine mammals — seals and whales. There are many sea birds, and five species of penguin, which can dive 550 meters (1800 feet) deep to feed and hold their breath for over 20 minutes. The sea is home to fish found nowhere else in the world, and to vast quantities of the shrimp-like crustaceans called krill. Some polar invertebrates are much larger than their warm-water relatives, perhaps because there's more food and/or more oxygen in the water.)
- Fossil specimens (reptiles, birds, teeth of early mammals, wood): Have students observe these specimens and consider what they tell us about Antarctica's climate in the past.
(Answers may include: These fossil specimens tell us that Antarctica was once warm enough for reptiles, mammals, birds, and trees to live there. They also tell us that the continent was once connected to what is now South America.)
Most ECW — Extreme Cold Weather — clothing is now made of synthetic materials that allow the body's moisture to escape but keep out wind and rain.
©Melanie Conner/National Science Foundation
Modern clothing and equipment: Ask students to imagine what it's like to live and work in Antarctica. How have modern technologies changed the experience? What did present-day explorers learn from Scott and Amundsen?
(Answers may include: Today, people who go to the Antarctic can make the trip by air, wear clothing that keeps them dry and warm, and stay in contact with the rest of the world.)
Science of Antarctica interactive map: Have students use the interactive map to explore the continent's weather, the land under the ice, and the impact of global warming.
Polar Personality Test: Have students take this quiz to see if they have what it takes to winter over at the bottom of the Earth.