Destination: Antarctica

The National Science Foundation funds polar research. The U.S. agency is taking TFK on an icy adventure.

Jan 06, 2014 | By David Bjerklie
CLIFF LEIGHT—GETTY IMAGE

A researcher stands on top of Castle Rock, not far from the American research base of McMurdo, Antarctica

Antarctica is the coldest, windiest, and emptiest place on Earth. It is home to penguins and teeming sea life along its coast. But it was only 120 years ago that the first human ever set foot on the continent. Deep freeze conditions over millions of years have created an enormous ice sheet that covers Antarctica—the ice is nearly three miles thick in places! Yet the continent is also the driest desert on the planet. 

TK
COURTESY PETER WEST
As a spokesperson for the National Science Foundation, Peter West has visited both the North and South Poles.

Tourists visit the coast of Antarctica during the summer, which is from November to February in the southern hemisphere. They get to see penguins, seals, whales, and a spectacular icy landscape. But the people who live and work on Antarctica are mostly scientists and those who help them carry out their research. The National Science Foundation (NSF) is the U.S. agency that funds this research through its Polar Programs, which supports scientists in both the Arctic and the Antarctic. The NSF also makes it possible for journalists and photographers to visit Antarctica to report on research being conducted there. Thanks to one of these grants, TFK has the pleasure and privilege of visiting the icy continent this month. The NSF also makes it possible for artists, filmmakers, and poets to visit Antarctica.

Peter West of the NSF will be accompanying TFK on its adventure. He has been a spokesperson for the Office of Polar Programs for the past 12 years and has had the opportunity to stand at both the North Pole and the South Pole. “Each year, we send about 125 teams of scientists to our three research stations in Antarctica,” says West. Some scientists study the movement of glaciers or the activity of volcanoes—one, Mt. Erebus, is rumbling right now! Others study whales, seals, birds, fish, or tiny microorganisms in the soil. There are even scientists who look for meteorites and ancient dinosaur bones. At the South Pole station, adds West, there are astronomers and other researchers who monitor changes in the atmosphere. The NSF makes it all possible, from outfitting the scientists with special cold-weather gear, which includes extra-warm parkas, gloves, and sleeping bags, to getting them into and around the continent on planes, helicopters, and snow tractors.

Stay tuned as TFK sends stories, photos, and videos of life on the ice.

To see a live web broadcast on January 23, teachers and parents can join the TFK community at edweb.net/tfk. All participants will receive printable worksheets with maps, time lines, and more.