Discussion Starters – Arctic Animals

seal.jpgArctic Animals – Discussion Starters


Use the following information to spark discussion in your classroom. Familiarize students with the events, people and organizations in the following paragraphs and then encourage students to discuss their opinions and reactions. There are several example questions and suggested areas for discussion. Remind your students that discussion requires well-supported opinions, respectful listening and sometimes agreeing to disagree.


Animals of the High Arctic have special adaptations that allow them to survive in the harsh climate. The muskox, stays warm with a double-layer of insulation. Shaggy coarse outer hairs shed the snow and block the wind and keeps an under-layer short wool called “qiviut” dry. When Arctic storms hit, muskox huddle in groups and can become completely covered with blowing snow. They stay perfectly warm under the snow in their double-layered coats. When the storm is over, they simply stand up and shake off the snow. The Peary Caribou have hollow hairs that trap their body heat and insulate them from the cold, much like a puffy coat traps your body heat, keeping you warm in the winter. Polar bears have thick coats and a large nose for warming the air they breathe. A mother bear will den under the snow during the four coldest months of winter where she and her cubs will be out of the wind and warm.

Our society’s technologies have made it possible for humans to inhabit most of the land on the planet without having to adapt to local conditions in the same way Arctic animals have. What insights can we gain about our society by contrasting ourselves with highly-local beings like Arctic animals?


It’s only been since the advent of modern shipping and refrigeration that people have been able to eat the same fresh foods no matter where they live or what season it is. At the turn of the last century people outside of the tropics had never even seen a banana. There were certain seasons when people ate freshly grown things like tomatoes; then when the tomatoes weren’t in season they ate only canned tomatoes.

Now foods are flown, shipped, and trucked all around the world. Rich Pirog at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture in Ames, Iowa calculated the miles traveled to Iowa by sixteen different kinds of produce. The non-local produce traveled a total of 25,301 miles–that is 400 miles further than the circumference of the earth!
The production and shipping of food can use a lot of energy. The Sierra Magazine calculated how much fuel it would take to transport different foods from around the world to Des Moines, Iowa and here is what they found (Notice how much fuel is needed to fly one pineapple to Des Moines!):

Volume of fuel needed to transport produce:

  • Apple (Iowa) – 0.048 ounces (0.288 teaspoons)
  • Apple (Washington) – 0.96 ounces (5.76 teaspoons)
  • One-pound bunch of grapes (California) – 1.76 ounces (3.5 tablespoons)
  • One-pound bunch of grapes (Chile) – 2.1 ounces (4.2 tablespoons)
  • Potato (North Dakota) – 0.52 ounces (1 tablespoon)
  • Potato (Idaho) – 1.12 ounces (2.25 tablespoons)
  • Pineapple (Costa Rica) – 4.32 ounces (0.54 cup)
  • Pineapple (Hawaii) – 67.68 ounces (0.529 gallons)

The idea of thinking about how far your food travels and how much energy is used in its transport is called Food Miles.

The idea of eating locally is gaining momentum. The word locavore, meaning someone who tries to eat foods grown within a 100-mile radius of his or her home, was the Oxford Dictionary 2007 Word of the Year. Numerous locavore groups are gaining numbers including eatlocalchallenge.com and www.locavores.com. Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs and Farmer’s Markets are becoming more widespread. CNN reports there are 18% more farmers markets now than in 1994. Many people who buy local produce enjoy supporting local farmers and believe the local produce tastes better and is more nutritious.

Movable Feasts, a 2007 book by Sarah Murray questions, however, whether the number of miles food travels is the best measure of our food’s carbon footprint, a calculation of greenhouse gas emissions. Murray argues that by just looking at transportation, we miss the energy costs from the food’s production. She says instead we should consider the whole life cycle of food.

For example, Murray cites a British study that concluded fewer greenhouse gases were emitted by importing tomatoes to Britain from Spain than by growing tomatoes in heated greenhouses in Britain. Murray also cites a study that found that lamb raised in New Zealand where the sheep can graze outside year-round is more “green” even after it is transported to Britain than lamb raised in Britain where sheep have to be fed manufactured feed during the winters.

While it may be difficult for consumers to figure out the energy cost of the “whole life cycle” of their food, including production and distribution, researchers at the University of Chicago are approaching the question of how to limit the carbon footprint of our diets from a more basic level. Gidon Eshel and Pamela Martin found that switching from a meat-based diet to a predominately plant-based diet could save the same amount of carbon emissions as switching from an SUV to a small sedan.


  • Was the concept of food miles something you had heard before? If so, where did you hear about it?
  • Do you think food decisions are a good place to think about reducing your carbon footprint? If so, why? If not, what do you see as better ways?
  • How easy would it be for you to figure out how far the produce you buy at the grocery store traveled to get to you?
    • If it is not easy, what could be done to make it easier for you and others to find out how far the food traveled?
    • Do you think the manager of your local grocery store would be open to discussing adding labels for local items?
    • Do you think people who shop at your neighborhood grocery store would chose to buy local produce if they were given the information?
  • If you wanted to consider the “whole life cycle” of the food, as Murray suggests in her book Movable Feasts, how easy would it be for you to find that information?
  • What could be done to make it easy for consumers to see the entire energy cost of a food item?


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