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Arctic Passage

Classroom Activity


Activity Summary
Students will plan a survival pack for severe Antarctic weather.

Learning Objectives
Students will be able to:

  • understand what factors play a part in keeping warm in the cold.

  • identify items necessary for survival in extremely cold climates.

Materials for each student
  • copy of the "Icy Survival" student handout (PDF or HTML)
  • copy of the "Antarctic Conditions Fact Sheet" student handout (PDF or HTML)

One of the reasons that Roald Amundsen survived and conquered the Northwest Passage when those before him had failed was that he chose to work with the environment rather than try to conquer it. He set sail in a small ship with a six-man crew and learned about survival from the Inuit who live there. This approach served him well: In 1905 he became the first explorer to navigate the passage.

Though today's polar researchers have more knowledge of the terrain and sophisticated navigational equipment, they, too, must think ahead and prepare well when they are working on the ice. These researchers often work in mobile teams that venture out on the ice to do research. They bring survival equipment in case conditions such as storms, accidents, or equipment failure prevent them from returning to camp. In this activity, students plan a standard survival pack that would enable them to endure severe Antarctic weather for 24 hours.

  1. Organize students into teams of four and distribute the handouts to each student.

  2. Have students identify pack items they consider essential or not. After teams make their selections, have them compare lists, discuss how they would use their items, and revise their packs based on their discussions.

  3. To conclude, have students consider what they would need to survive in a hot desert environment and compare items in both cold and hot packs and their reasons for including each.

  4. As an extension, have students research and report on methods the Inuit use to survive in the Arctic.

Activity Answer

Conditions are so extreme in Antarctica that scientists expend more energy on surviving than they do on research. In actuality there are several types of survival packs. There are first-aid packs, helicopter emergency transport packs, deep-field packs for those working distances away from the base camp, and packs for crevasse rescues. This activity uses a combination of items from the helicopter and deep-field packs.

In a worst-case scenario, a group might have to wait out a storm in order to make safe passage back to base camp. However, communication and transportation systems have become so advanced that it is unlikely anyone would be left for days. Students' choices for their packs may vary. Each group should choose a total of 16 items: eight items that are the same for each pack and eight items that are shared by the group (two per pack). Use the chart to the right as a general guide for determining essential and nonessential items.

Possible items for survival pack




individual first-aid kit



to treat wounds or illnesses

sleeping bag, thermal sleeping pad



to hold body heat in and keep cold out

socks/mittens/face mask



to have as spares in case originals are lost or get wet

gorp (nuts and raisins mix), chocolate bar



high-energy carbohydrates to keep digestive system working and release energy quickly

dehydrated food



carbohydrates to keep body warm

1/2 gallon water



to prevent dehydration (a serious problem in the dry Antarctic), and to rehydrate food




to provide shelter against wind and to protect body warmth

backpacking stove/kerosene*



to warm food and water, which freeze in a pack, for eating




to light stove

pot and pan set*



to prepare hot water and cook food

snow shovel/ice saw*



to build a snow wall to block wind for a tent, or to cut ice to make a shelter




to pound tent stakes into the frozen ground

radio with spare batteries*



to communicate with rescue team

signal mirror*



to signal rescue team

camera, book, pictures of someone you love, rifle, toilet paper



adds additional weight, not necessary to survive

beef jerky, cheese, 1/2 loaf bread



unusable when frozen and not high enough carbohydrate energy levels for quick energy release




not as efficient for holding in heat as sleeping bag




not needed because there is constant daylight

drill, journal/pencil



for research, not an emergency situation




too cumbersome to carry; in severe weather, it is better to stay put and wait for help or for storm to end

suntan lotion



not needed because body will be protected by clothing

insect repellant



essentially no insects in Antarctic




useful, but food can be eaten without these

* shared group items

Links and Books

Web Sites

NOVA—Arctic Passage
Learn about the predicted future of the Northwest Passage, gain insight into Passage conqueror Roald Amundsen, see expedition maps, read a note left by Franklin's surviving men, view Franklin artifacts, and discover the secrets of building an igloo.

Sir John Franklin Expedition
Details the expedition, and includes information about the ships and their captain.

The Fate of Franklin
Provides an overview of the Franklin expedition, including illustrations of Franklin, information about the Arctic region, and details about modern-day searches for Franklin.


Across the Top of the World
by James P. Delgato. Diane Publishing Company, 1999.
Describes tales and voyages of Arctic exploration and includes many maps, photos, and images from different eras.

The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock, Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin
by David Murphy. The Collins Press, 2004.
Tells a chronological narrative of McClintock's discoveries and draws upon private and published journals and letters.

Arctic Grail: The Quest for the Northwest Passage and the North Pole, 1818-1909
by Pierre Berton. The Lyons Press, 2000.
Investigates the search for Sir John Franklin's lost expedition and incorporates an analysis of extensive research, diaries, and private journals.

Buried in Ice: The Mystery of a Lost Arctic Expedition
by Owen Beattie and John Geiger. Scholastic, 1992.
Uses drawings, paintings, and historic and present-day photographs to illustrate a narrative of the failed Franklin expedition and provides insight into how the men died. Includes a fictional account of the passage as seen through the eyes of a 19-year-old member of the crew.


The "Icy Survival" activity aligns with the following National Science Education Standards (see

Grades 5-8
Science Standard F

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Personal health
Risks and benefits

Grades 9-12
Science Standard F

Science in Personal and Social Perspectives
Personal and community health
Natural and human-induced hazards

Classroom Activity Author

This classroom activity originally appeared, in slightly different form, on NOVA's "Warnings From the Ice" Web site.

Teacher's Guide
Arctic Passage

Video is not required for this activity
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