The Sant Ocean Hall: Life at the Poles Exhibit

Most of you know that the Earth’s poles are cold. But did you know that there are hundreds of organisms especially adapted to living in these extremes? Did you know that the communities at the North and South poles are dramatically different from each other? Or that there is a difference between sea ice, ice shelves, and icebergs? Read on to learn how the Poles gallery in the Smithsonian's Sant Ocean Hall will answer all of these questions and more!

Polar bears are threatened by a lack of sea ice.

Polar bears are threatened by the loss of sea ice in the Arctic.


K. Elliott, NOAA, Hidden Ocean 2005

At the Poles, Life Thrives 
Located beside the Shores and Shallows gallery (which highlights different kinds of coastal ecosystems around the world), the Poles area will take you to the ends of the earth and empower you with a broad understanding of life and physical conditions at both poles. You will learn about how life thrives in these regions despite the extremes of dark and cold, and how ecology there affects, and is affected by, life around the planet.


Poles Apart
We often think of the poles together, but life and the physical characteristics of the Arctic Ocean and Southern Ocean are vastly different. The Arctic Ocean is almost landlocked and is relatively calm because it’s largely covered by ice. Polar bears and walruses roam about. The Southern Ocean, with no surrounding land, is more turbulent. It supports more abundant and varied species because it has been isolated for 30 million years.


Arctic cod have a special protein that warms their blood.

Arctic cod have a special protein that keeps their blood from freezing in ice cold waters.


E. Siddon, UAF, Hidden Ocean 2005, NOAA.

Adapting to Cold and Darkness

Organisms adopt food choices and survival techniques for these harsh climates. You will see comparisons of Arctic and Southern Ocean food webs and dramatic photos of animals found in each. You will also have a chance to learn about animals’ fascinating adaptations to extreme cold and lengthy darkness. For example, ice fish have antifreeze in their blood while Arctic terns fly from pole to pole, logging some 20,000 miles per year.


Do Humans Affect the Poles?
As you explore the Poles area of the exhibit, you will investigate the impact of rising temperatures and chemical fallout. You may not live near a pole, but you can still affect it with your everyday actions. Human activities may be affecting temperatures and critters at the both poles. For instance, chemicals rarely used in the Arctic are appearing in Arctic waters, transported there by wind and water. Once there, they move through the food webs, accumulating in increasing quantities in the tissues of Arctic animals and endangering their health.

Rising temperatures lead to melting icecaps. Melting glaciers can lead to rising sea level. This could have very real effects on coastal-living people worldwide.

When we use fossil fuels to power our cars, homes, and businesses, we put heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

When we use fossil fuels to power our cars, homes, and businesses, we put heat-trapping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.


Sarah Leen/National Geographic Society

Polar sea ice also helps to regulate Earth’s climate by reflecting sunlight back out to space. Less ice could lead to warmer temperatures because less sunlight is reflected. What will happen? Scientists make educated predictions, but only time will tell.


Tracking predictions
Polar bear populations are struggling in the face of warming temperatures and less ice from which to hunt. What will happen over the next 30 years? See what scientists predict and track those predictions against actual events over time. Visit the Poles gallery to get a taste of how life (including humans) thrives in cold, darkness, and ice.