Which Pole Is Colder?

Really cold, or really, really cold?

Both the Arctic (North Pole) and the Antarctic (South Pole) are very cold because they get very little direct sunlight. The Sun is always low on the horizon, even in the middle of summer. In winter, the Sun is so far below the horizon that it doesn't come up at all for months at a time. So the days are just like the nights — cold and dark.

Even though the North Pole and South Pole are "polar opposites," they both get the same amount of sunlight. But the South Pole is a lot colder than the North Pole. Why? Well, the poles are polar opposites in other ways too.

The Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land. The Antarctic is land surrounded by ocean.

These images are aerial maps, showing where the Arctic and Antarctic are located on the globe. The top image depicts and labels the Arctic Sea. It emphasizes the Arctic land mass (North Pole) around the Arctic Sea using a dark blue color, whereas the surrounding land masses are a pale yellow-white color. The bottom image depicts and labels Antarctica, or the South Pole. Antarctica's land mass is also emphasized using a dark blue color.

The Arctic is the North Pole, and the South Pole is in Antarctica. The poles are on the top of the Earth, and on the bottom of the Earth, respectively. Based on these maps, you can see that the Arctic is an ocean surrounded by land, while Antarctica is land surrounded by ocean on all sides. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The ocean under the Arctic ice is cold, but still warmer than the ice in the glacier Antarctic! So the ocean warms the air a bit.

Antarctica is dry — and high. Under all of Antarctica's ice and snow is land, not ocean. And it has many mountains. The height of the surface is called "elevation" — much of Antarctica's mountains are very tall and rise super high above sea level. So, the Antarctic is at a much higher elevation than the Arctic. The average elevation of Antarctica is about 7,500 feet (2.3 kilometers). And the higher you go, the colder it gets. The Antarctic ice is super thick — up to 3 miles thick! The Antarctic ice forms a huge plateau that sits high above sea level.

This image is a 3-D topographical view of Antarctica, demonstrating its various high elevations. The Antarctic mass in this image depicts how the Northernmost area is plateaued, whereas the Southernmost tail is at a much higher elevation.

This 3-D topographical view of Antarctica gives an idea of its high elevations and mountains. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech.

The main reason that the South Pole is so much colder than the North Pole is because of the strength of the winds blowing around the poles. Antarctic winds are very strong and stop warmer air from mixing with the polar air. This also happens in the Arctic, but winds surrounding the North Pole are not as strong. Because of this, warmer air from the warmer mid-latitudes is able to mix with polar air, making the Arctic warmer.

Check out the table below to see just how much colder the South Pole is than the North Pole! Brrrrr!

Time of year Average (mean) temperature
North Pole South Pole
Summer 32° F (0° C) −18° F (−28.2° C)
Winter −40° F (−40° C) −76° F (−60° C)