Let’s learn about Antarctica – Science News for Students

There are more penguins than people living in Antarctica. Some of the people study the penguins.
David Merron Photography/Getty Images

Antarctica sits at the southernmost part of the planet. This continent is supercold, incredibly windy and very dry. With so little precipitation it’s actually a desert, Antarctica is covered in vast ice sheets that hide giant volcanoes and buried lakes. Millions of years ago, though, a rainforest flourished there.
No country owns Antarctica, and no people call the continent their permanent home. Instead, a treaty signed by 50 nations governs what can happen there. Destructive activities like mining and military action are banned. The environment is protected. And science is the priority. Many countries host research stations there. These include the U.S.-operated McMurdo Station and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station. Scientists study everything from Earth’s past climate to meteorites to, of course, penguins. Sometimes they even study themselves.
All the ice and snow in Antarctica has locked up about 80 percent of the world’s freshwater. This seems like a fun fact until you think about global warming. That’s because the warming climate is gradually causing Antarctica’s ice to melt. While it’s still brutally cold at the South Pole, edges of this continent often get above freezing. The waters there are warming, too. The ice along the edges is melting. That makes it easier for ice on land to flow into the sea — and melt. Scientists now predict that by 2100, that melting ice could raise sea levels across the globe by 0.6 to 1.8 meters (2 to 6 feet). 
The big melt: Earth’s ice sheets are under attack Antarctica and Greenland are losing ice 3 to 6 times as quickly as in the 1980s. By 2100, the rate of loss could increase another 10-fold. (1/31/2019) Readability: 6.8
Scientists’ brains shrank after a long stay in Antarctica The isolation of a long-term mission at an Antarctic research station shrunk part of crew members’ brains, a small study suggests. (1/20/2020) Readability: 7.6
A rainforest once grew near the South Pole A forest flourished within 1,000 kilometers of the South Pole. That was a while ago, as in millions of years ago. (5/11/2020) Readability: 6.4
Scientists Say: Desert
Scientists Say: Continent
Explainer: Antarctica, land of lakes
Explainer: Ice sheets and glaciers
Why Antarctica and the Arctic are polar opposites
Cool Jobs: Careers on ice
Hot on the trail of Antarctic meteorites
Secrets of the world’s extreme divers
Giant volcanoes lurk beneath Antarctic ice
To monitor penguin diet from satellites, look to poop
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Word Find
You can help scientists study penguins in Antarctica and other faraway lands without ever leaving your home. Count penguins, chicks and eggs online for Penguin Watch. This citizen-science project uses aerial photos and time-lapse-camera imagery to help researchers understand how penguin populations are changing.
aerial: Of or taking place in the air.
Antarctica: A continent mostly covered in ice, which sits in the southernmost part of the world.
Arctic: A region that falls within the Arctic Circle. The edge of that circle is defined as the northernmost point at which the sun is visible on the northern winter solstice and the southernmost point at which the midnight sun can be seen on the northern summer solstice. The high Arctic is that most northerly third of this region. It’s a region dominated by snow cover much of the year.
continent: (in geology) The huge land masses that sit upon tectonic plates. In modern times, there are six established geologic continents: North America, South America, Eurasia, Africa, Australia and Antarctica. In 2017, scientists also made the case for yet another: Zealandia.
diet: (n.) The foods and liquids ingested by an animal to provide the nutrition it needs to grow and maintain health. (v.) To adopt a specific food-intake plan. People may adopt a specific diet for religious or ethical reasons, to address food allergies, to control their body weight or to control a disease such as high blood pressure or diabetes.
environment: The sum of all of the things that exist around some organism or the process and the condition those things create. Environment may refer to the weather and ecosystem in which some animal lives, or, perhaps, the temperature and humidity (or even the placement of things in the vicinity of an item of interest).
freshwater: A noun or adjective that describes bodies of water with very low concentrations of salt. It’s the type of water used for drinking and making up most inland lakes, ponds, rivers and streams, as well as groundwater.
glacier: A slow-moving river of ice hundreds or thousands of meters deep. Glaciers are found in mountain valleys and also form parts of ice sheets.
global warming: The gradual increase in the overall temperature of Earth’s atmosphere due to the greenhouse effect. This effect is caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide, chlorofluorocarbons and other gases in the air, many of them released by human activity.
ice sheet: A broad blanket of ice, often kilometers deep. Ice sheets currently cover most of Antarctica. An ice sheet also blankets most of Greenland. During the last glaciation, ice sheets also covered much of North America and Europe.
meteorite: A lump of rock or metal from space that passes through Earth’s atmosphere and collides with the ground.
monitor: To test, sample or watch something, especially on a regular or ongoing basis.
penguin: A flightless black-and-white bird native to the far Southern Hemisphere, especially Antarctica and its nearby islands.
population: (in biology) A group of individuals from the same species that lives in the same area.
precipitation: (in chemistry) The creation of a solid from a solution. This can occur if there is too much of a chemical to dissolve completely into a solution. It also can be a sign that some chemical reaction is taking place. (in meteorology) A term for water falling from the sky. It can be in any form, from rain and sleet to snow or hail.
rainforest: Dense forest rich in biodiversity found in tropical areas with consistent heavy rainfall.
satellite: A moon orbiting a planet or a vehicle or other manufactured object that orbits some celestial body in space.
sea level: The overall level of the ocean over the entire globe when all tides and other short-term changes are averaged out.
time-lapse camera: A camera that takes single shots of one spot at regular intervals over a prolonged period. Later, when viewed in succession like a movie, the images show how a location changes (or something in the image changes its position) over time.
treaty: A formal agreement that two or more sovereign powers (usually countries or tribal nations) have adopted, giving its provisions the force of law.
volcano: A place on Earth’s crust that opens, allowing magma and gases to spew out from underground reservoirs of molten material. The magma rises through a system of pipes or channels, sometimes spending time in chambers where it bubbles with gas and undergoes chemical transformations. The surface around a volcano’s opening can grow into a mound or cone shape as successive eruptions send more lava onto the surface, where it cools into hard rock.
Sarah Zielinski is managing editor of Science News for Students. She has degrees in biology and journalism and likes to write about ecology, plants and animals. She has three cats: Oscar, Saffir and Alani.
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Readability Score: 7.4
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