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Janice Describes Her Visit to the South Pole


Q. Tell us a little about what you learned at the South Pole and how it influenced your work now.
I was invited to go to the South Pole by CARA (Center of Research in Antarctica), at the University of Chicago. Sponsored by the National Science Foundation, the objective of the trip was to encourage student interest in science and Antarctica. Information from the trip and research as a result of the trip served as the foundation for some of the experiments in the book Janice VanCleave's 203 Icy, Freezing, Frosty, Cool & Wild Experiments."

My expedition to Antarctica was during December, 1997, which was summer in the Southern Hemisphere so the temperature at the pole was only minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit (minus 50 degrees with wind chill). Burrr!

Since my trip to Antarctica I've had the opportunity to present programs to kids and educators telling them about interesting things I discovered directly or through research, including:

  • The ends of Earth's axis are called the geographic North Pole and geographic South Pole.
  • At the South Pole, one end of my compass needle did dip down, but it did not point toward the South Pole. The compass needle pointed toward the magnetic poles. The magnetic south pole is about 1,000 miles from the South Pole and is off the coast of Antarctica. The needle dipped down because it was following the magnetic lines of force around Earth which come out of the magnetic north pole and enter the magnetic south pole. Compass needles are most horizontal at the equator and dip the most at the magnetic poles.
  • The Sun's apparent motion was in a circle around the sky at about the same height above the ground. At any time of day, the Sun appeared to be at the same height above the horizon, but from one time to the next it moved in a counterclockwise direction around the sky.
  • Many of the scientists working at the South Pole are astronomers. They are better able to study the sky at the pole because the air is very dry and thin. Since Earth rotates, its atmosphere rotates with it, thus the swirling blanket of air moves out more at Earth's equator and in more at the poles. Thus the atmospheric layer at the poles is thinner and astronomers are better able to see through it.
  • At the south pole, it only snows about 2 inches each year, but since the temperature here is never above freezing. The elevation at the pole is due to the more than 1 1/2 miles of ice that has build up over the years.