Discovering the Arctic: for teachers

Welcome to Discovering the Arctic, an education resource for schools, developed by the Royal Geographical Society with IBG, in partnership with the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, British Antarctic Survey and the Scottish Association for Marine Science. This is not a 'scheme of work' but a resource to dip into depending on your curriculum needs and priorities. It is aimed at GCSE level in England and Wales (14 - 16 year olds) but is suitable for other age groups with some adaptation.

Information about the curriculum can be found at,-gcses-and-a-levels/

The learning activities are devised for individual, pair or group work. Many are in interactive multimedia format for use either on an Interactive Whiteboard or for students to complete individually.

Wherever possible there are text-based alternatives, usually in Microsoft Word. You can download these to use away from the computer and/or to adapt them to meet your students’ needs.

For more detailed notes on Accessibility see

There is information and tips on the activities in each section to help you plan how to use the site.

Introducing the Arctic

Learning objectives

  • To understand the global nature of the world’s climate system
  • To comprehend the interconnectedness of cause and effect between places
  • To appreciate the effect of climate change on the Arctic and the consequences of the change
  • To understand that there can be both positive and negative outcomes of climate change

Climate challenge

The relative weighting of the forward and back commands could be discussed. Are they right or wrong? How would the students weight the statements? Would they choose different statements? Students could design their own board game about the positive and negative effects of climate change in the Arctic.

Students listen or read the interview with Inuit teenagers and devise their own questions.

Sensitive Arctic

An enquiry into the feedback mechanisms in the Arctic and the effect of global ocean currents on the world’s climate.

Losing the ice

A study of the effect of melting ice on glaciers, ice sheets and permafrost and an investigation as to what this will mean for the region and its people.

Cryostat advantages could include

  • Can operate all year round
  • Can cover both Polar Regions
  • More reliable than people once launched
  • Not affected by adverse weather condition

Cryostat disadvantages could include

  • Costly
  • The first satellite was lost during launch
  • The technology might break down

What happens next?

An investigation into adaptation of plants, animals, birds and people in the Arctic, the effects of climate change elsewhere in the world and the mitigation measures that can be undertaken. Should nature reserves be created? Students are encouraged to research the pros and cons of mitigation methods and the implications of these on their own lives.

Snow, Water Ice and Permafrost

Human actions in areas far from the Arctic will determine the future response of the cryosphere to climate change. What sort of actions might these be? What responses to the changes in the cryosphere in the Arctic are being experienced in other areas of the world?

Physical landscape

The Arctic has features of both glacial and periglacial processes, find out more about them in this section.

Arctic wildlife

Learning objectives

  • To understand how animals and plants adapt to living in the Arctic
  • To investigate a migratory species, the barnacle goose
  • To investigate the fragility of the ecosystem
  • To undertake an enquiry into the effects of climate change

Cold feet

Whether it is feet and paws or roots animals and plants are adapted to the climate. Some animals insulate their paws with fur, others with blubber (fat) while plants grow in niches/cracks in the rocks to minimize wind chill or grow close to the ground.

Red or Dead

An enquiry into the fragility of the Arctic environment and the animals which are at risk of extinction.

Long haul travel

Many species that live in the Arctic migrate south to find food and to breed thus escaping the worst of the Arctic winter. Barnacle geese migrate to the north of Scotland. This section investigates their migration with some mathematical opportunity to calculate one bird’s migration and feeding pattern. The bird loses 27% of its body weight over the month of migration. There is also an opportunity for some descriptive writing.

The sounds of barnacle geese were supplied by Sounds Natural.

A fine balance

An investigation of whales and polar bears and the effects of climate change and the use of them by indigenous people.

Arctic science

Learning objectives

  • To understand the importance of the 2007- 2009 International Polar Year
  • To understand the nature of the Northern Lights
  • To investigate some of the research which is being undertaken in the Arctic
  • To undertake an enquiry into the pollutants and their effects in the Arctic

Arctic Research Programme

Students work in groups to find out more about the aspects of scientific research undertaken in the Arctic, using the web links. They might be surprised by the amount of daylight or darkness at various times of the year and about the amount of snow that is still around, for example at the airfield at Ny-Alesund in May.

Svalbard Science

Staying at the Arctic Research Centre

Webcams located in Ny Ålesund can give us an up to date idea of what it might be like to stay at the Arctic Research Centre. Students could look at existing blogs and write their own to describe what it is like to live and work in the Arctic.

Northern Lights

An investigation into why the Northern Lights happen and their characteristics.

Shrinking Sea Ice

The most recent sites could be investigated. The thickness and area of summer sea ice is shrinking dramatically. Scientists link this to global warming. They have run climate models which predict the sea ice disappearing in a hundred, fifty, or even thirty years. Scientists need comprehensive data in order to predict more accurately. The results from the European Space Agency’s Cryostat Project help to inform the climate models.

Global warming

The Polar Regions are more susceptible to climate change than other areas of the world. In the Arctic large areas of snow and ice reflect heat from the sun, and keep this region cool. As temperatures rise over the globe, the ice and snow is melting, leaving bare land and open dark water which absorbs the sunlight. This is making the region warmer, causing changes in wind and water currents, effecting weather around the world.

The polar seasons dictate the forming and melting of sea ice. Traditionally the summer melt season begins in March and ends sometime during September. Now the melting season is growing longer and the sea ice minimum is occurring later. Sea ice minimum is when the sea ice extent is at its lowest.

Arctic pollution

Investigate the concentration of pollutants in the Arctic. Students could look at the map showing proportional circles and time and ask why there is a concentration of pollutants and why some areas have higher concentration than other areas.

Arctic people and resources

Living on the Edge – Learning objectives

  • To discover the traditional resources that have been used for hundreds of years in the Arctic Region and the changes that are occurring.
  • To understand the rich variety of resources available in the sea and on the land.
  • To explore how climate change is affecting the exploitation of these resources

Background information on the settlements:

Longyearbyen in Svalbard was established as a centre for coal mining in 1906 by John Longyear an American businessman. The current site is located on an outwash plain of the Longyear Glacier. The town can be re-supplied by ship during the ice free season. Air transport throughout the year is provided by a strip capable of dealing with 737 jets. The coal is nowadays only used to power the local power station. Nowadays Tourism, scientific research and conferences are the main economic activities of this Norwegian administered archipelago. It is important to stress that there are no indigenous inhabitants living in Svalbard as people leave when their work contracts are finished.

Iqaluit was set up by the U.S. Air Force in 1942 as a transit point for aircraft to the war in Europe. The infrastructure attracted 489 Inuit by 1957 to the employment possibilities offered by the base. The Americans left the area in 1963 and the town was made the main Canadian administrative center for the Eastern Arctic. In 1999 it was made the capital of the newly established Canadian territory of Nunavut. The city with a population of 5959(2003) is located in the gentle hills surrounding the Koojesse Inlet.

This site was set up in 1947 as an airfield during the Cold War. In 1953 a migration of Inuit led to the establishment of the modern settlement of Resolute. The current site is located in a bay beneath low hills some seven kilometers from the airport which acts as a transportation hub for the High Arctic. The current population stands at 215 people.

Located on a on a site which slopes downward from the Qaanaaq Ice Cap, the town is bisected by a river from the ice cap which acts as the town water supply during the summer months. The town was established in 1953 when Inuit families were relocated from the village of Dundas due to the establishment of the Thule Air Base. Qaanaaq was chosen due to its relatively benign climate and abundance of marine animals.

The varied nature of the settlements are examined, some have been abandoned. It introduces the occupations and relative sizes of the settlements and develops skills of locating and drawing graphs on a map.


The map at the top enlarges to a multimedia interactive showing the 2010 map first, the switch to the 2070 map is at the bottom of the map.

An enquiry exercise looking at the lives of nine people in the Qaanaaq region whose lives will be changed by climate change and the loss of the glaciers and sea ice. Some will be winners some losers, students use the information to decide who belongs to which group. There are no definitive answers it is the students’ reasoning which should be encouraged.

This could be done with the students working in small groups, each taking the role of one of the people in the groups and then making a presentation as to how their life will change.

Resources from the edge – Learning objectives

To discover the traditional resources that have been used for hundreds of years in the Arctic.

To understand the rich variety of resources available in the sea and on the land.

To explore how climate change is affecting the exploitation of these resources

Arctic homes

1822Igloo, etching taken from the book ‘Journal of a second voyage for the discovery of a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific performed in the years 1821-22-23, in His Majesty’s Ships Fury and Hecla, under the orders of Captain William Edward Parry, R.N., F.R.S., and commander of the expedition’

The articles in the igloo are all obtained from local sources, the indigenous people of the Arctic had to be self sufficient. For example:

  • Bows for hunting made from bone and sinew
  • Spears made from ivory, for example from narwhal
  • Bowls from the root of musk ox horn
  • Skins for clothing and shoes
  • Stone for cooking pots
  • Bone for fishing hooks and arrow heads
  • Seal and whale blubber oil for heating, lighting and cooking.

Some materials came from outside the region, although found locally, for example:

  • Chips of iron-nickel meteorites, a limited source of iron metal, to form the cutting edges for tools such as an ulu and spear tips.
  • Driftwood for a variety of items including snow goggles. The need for wearing goggles could be discussed.

2009 – Simon’s house, image taken on the Arctic Voice Expedition

Old meets the new. The computer and furniture will come from Europe or America.

The meat is from caribou hunted locally and prepared using an ulu, single bladed cutting tool. A similar tool can be seen in the 1822 image. Meat is still prepared on the floor in the traditional manner.

Students could be asked to look at the similarities and differences between the two images.

Using the land

This section explores the changing nature of subsistence husbandry. Students could be asked to develop a programme for the protection and management of reindeer herds.

In the waters

An enquiry into ‘How might less sea ice and affect the Arctic marine ecosystem and its exploitation?’ using information in this section, the climate change chapter and web investigation.

Natures Riches

Students can use the resources of the section to discuss the advantages and disadvantages of oil and gas production in the Arctic Region. The geology of the region is explained and the effect of reduced ice cover on the exploitation of minerals discussed.

Activity “What is the role of the Arctic in meeting future energy demands?”

This is a very complex subject with many lengthy reports. Students could be asked to work in groups on one of the sources and report back to the class when the information can be pooled and then a discussion take place as the role of the Arctic in meeting future energy demands.

Students could also discuss the extent to which those increasing demands could be mitigated and the extent to which people, flora and fauna are adapting to change. Teaching resources | Module 12: mitigation and adaptation at Climate4classrooms would be useful.

Conflict and geopolitical issues in the Arctic

Use the resources from the site and suggested characters for a role play/debate

Canadian politician
Issues to think about:

  • Defence of national sovereignty
  • Fishing, tax, shipping and smuggling laws
  • Cost of mandatory ‘ice-breaker’ ships

Managing Director of Russian oil company
Issues to think about:

  • Potential for collaboration with other national oil firms
  • Cost of exploration for oil

Russian politician
Issues to think about:

  • Economic impact
  • Potential for exploitation of natural resources – nickel, iron ore, phosphate, copper, cobalt main market is China
  • Cost of mandatory ‘ice-breaker’ ships

Norwegian cruise company
Issues to think about:

  • Potential for tourism
  • Consider the Search and Rescue capability of the area being visited
  • The infrastructure of the area and the possibility of evacuating a boat safely and quickly

US shipping company
Issues to think about:

  • Possibility for new shipping routes (Trans-arctic)
  • Impact on transit time and fuel costs
  • Increased access to regional resources
  • Development in localised shipping for resource extraction and tourism
  • Any environmental impacts

Indigenous community representative
Issues to think about:

  • Thawing permafrost impact on infrastructure (buildings, roads and pipelines) in Alaska and Siberia
  • Opportunities with industries such as mining, ship building
  • Impact on fishing
  • Social and economic changes
  • How important is it to maintain a traditional way of life
  • Will you community still be able to hunt whales and seals
  • How can communities work alongside large business?

Environmental organisation
Issues to think about:

  • Environmental impacts
  • Global warming – good for Greenland?

There is really no right or a wrong answer to the question, what is important is the discussion.

Useful resources can be found on the National Geographic, Greenpeace and Greenland Government sites.

Resources from elsewhere

Answer to the question ‘how do you think resources from elsewhere would affect the lives of indigenous people?’ This is an open ended question which should provoke discussion in groups or class using resources from elsewhere in the chapter. The picture is of the road to Qaanaaq airport. The airport has provided employment for 15 people, mostly clerical and managerial work for women, with a fire truck with a male crew, one male security officer and male baggage handlers as well. The provision of employment for the women allows the men in the family to carry on with the hunting traditions.

‘How many of the items in the pictures have been imported into the Qaanaaq region?’

Teachers could give some hints about possible origins using the answers below:

  • Hickory sledge from USA
  • Rope from England
  • Primus stove from Denmark
  • High grade fuel for stove from Nigeria
  • Plastic bag from Denmark
  • Trousers from China
  • Ventile cotton for jacket from Egypt

‘Do you think these imports are beneficial?’

Open ended discussion, there is some improvement to the quality of life, but there is also pollution and rubbish as the bottom two pictures show.

The Northwest passage – the Arctic Grail

Further information about the Northwest passage can be found in the Arctic challenges section.

Arctic challenges

Postcard from the edge – Learning objectives

  • To investigate the nature of the tourist industry in the Arctic
  • To undertake an enquiry of the effects of tourism on the Arctic ecosystem and people
  • To understand ecotourism and sustainable tourism and the difference between them

Santa where?

Discussion as to why difference Arctic countries want Santa to live with them.

Wish you were here?

Types of holiday could include:

  • Skidoo trips
  • Wilderness camping
  • Trekking
  • Reindeer safari
  • Christmas with Santa
  • Dog-sled tours
  • Ice fishing
  • Wildlife cruises
  • Husky and sledge safari

The image of the North Cape was taken at midnight in mid-summer.

More about the Northern Lights can be found in the Science section.

The rest of the section is an investigation about the various attractions of the Norwegian Arctic region.

Last chance to see

An investigation of Doomsday tourism, other examples might be the Great Barrier Reef, the Maldives etc.

Using other areas of the site students could discuss which has the greater impact, tourism or climate change.

Students could investigate the rules for ecotourism, particularly whale watching.

The guidelines for principles tourism are discussed through role play. It should be noted that it is difficult to get exact numbers of tourists for the region, partly because of the difficulties in defining the region (see Arctic Circumpolar Governance chapter) and also because of the nature of some of the tourist activities such as cruising.

Ice Hotel

An investigation into ecotourism and sustainable tourism using the Ice Hotel in Northern Sweden as a case study

Troubled waters – Learning objectives

  • To learn about the nature and extent of sea ice
  • To discover what it is like to live and work on the ice covered water
  • To understand the effect of climate change on the sea ice extent

Fabled passage

A journey through the Northwest Passage outlining the history of the search for a sea route through to link Europe and Asia. It could be used on an interactive whiteboard to introduce some of the themes explored in more depth in the main activities of the section.

The concrete sea

The first of the images is grease ice and the bottom one is pancake ice, students could discuss the appropriateness of these terms.

The NOAA’s Observers’ guide to sea ice could be used to look at different types of ice in more detail.

Do you think you could drink a glass of melted sea ice water? Answer -It is too salty, the brine in sea water gets trapped in the ice.

Polar expeditions use melted multiyear ice as a source of fresh water – why do you think multiyear ice is more potable than first year ice? Answer – the brine has had time to drain through the ice, and it’s nearly all gone – so you can drink it!

Breaking the ice

The section looks at how vessels break up the ice to open up sea lanes during the summer months. The mechanics of this is described.

The interview with Captain Snider can be used as a stimulus for class discussion on what it might feel like to be on one of these ships and also as a stimulus for the activity at the end of the section.

Polar patrol

The International Marine Organization (IMO) has developed an International Code of safety for ships operating in polar waters (Polar Code), to cover the full range of design, construction, equipment, operational, training, search and rescue and environmental protection matters relevant to ships operating in the inhospitable waters surrounding the two poles.

Northwest and Northeast passages

Students could list the reasons why these routes are so important. They could also discuss why Canada and Russia wish to have sovereignty over the areas and why other countries want the areas to be under international jurisdiction. What effect is global warming having on the accessibility of the routes?

Environmental impacts and other impacts can be discussed.

Arctic governance

Arctic circumpolar governance – learning objectives

  • To define the Arctic region
  • To understand the complexities of Arctic governance
  • To understand why there is a need for change in Arctic governance, particularly in light of climate change.

Where is the Arctic?

The section introduces the limits of the Arctic region and the complexity of defining these limits.

All of the definitions are correct!

Climate change will alter the temperature and vegetation limits, pushing the boundary of the Arctic Region by these definitions further north.

Western Europe is not in the 50 degree north boundary because the warm North Atlantic Drift keeps the western coast of Europe warm.

Countries of the Arctic

The development of the government of Nunavut is examined and why there is a need for change. Students can investigate the changes to governance.

Students are asked to choose an image to illustrate what they think the Arctic is like. Images of the Arctic are often used by the countries which have Arctic lands on their stamps. These are described in a virtual journey and students are asked to design a stamp.

The Arctic Council

The working of the Council and its members are explored. Reasons why countries without Arctic lands could be:

  • Increased accessibility of resources
  • Land as yet unclaimed
  • Interest in the preservation of ecosystem
  • Interest in the preservation of the indigenous way of life
  • Concern over the rate of climate change

Changes to the Arctic could include:

  • Less sea ice
  • Globalisation
  • Exposure of resources
  • Changes in the indigenous way of life, etc.

Areas where there are disagreements might include

  • Search and Rescue
    Students should be encouraged to think of factors other than the centres being equally spaced around the Arctic. They could use other areas of the site to look at:
    – Extent of ice cover and for how long during the year
    – The sea routes and number of ships during the year
    – The land sea balance – which is most likely to be used in a situation in the area, air, sea or both?
    – The population of an area and how that might affect the need for search and rescue provision.
  • Oil Spill Preparedness Response
    Students should be encouraged to link this to the section on oil and gas in Resources from the Edge – Nature’s riches. A class debate could be encouraged.