Which pole is colder?

Really cold, or really, really cold?

Both the Arctic (North Pole) and the Antarctic (South Pole) are cold because they don’t get any 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 ocean surrounded by land. The Antarctic is land surrounded by ocean.

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

Antarctica is dry—and high. Under the ice and snow is land, not ocean. And it’s got mountains. The average elevation of Antarctica is about 7,500 feet (2.3 km). And the higher you go, the colder it gets.

Three-D topographical image of Antarctica showing high elevations and mountains.

This 3-D topographical view of Antarctica gives an idea of its high elevations and mountains.

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)

What’s going on this year?

At the end of September 2012, the Arctic ice was the smallest on record. If the ice were on a diet, we would say that it was very successful. But, just as with people on diets, shrinking too much is not healthy.

Satellite data shows shrinking Arctic sea ice , August 26, 2012

This image shows the area covered by Arctic sea ice on Aug. 26, 2012. On this day, the sea ice dipped to its smallest extent ever recorded in more than three decades of satellite measurements, according to scientists from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center.

The Arctic ice is shrinking because the ocean under the ice is warming. The warming ocean means Earth’s climate is getting warmer.

The Antarctic’s climate is also warming, but not as fast, because it is less affected by the warming ocean.

Both the Arctic and the Antarctic are doing pretty much what climate scientists have predicted. We need to listen to them about other things they predict.