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Science: the frozen planet

This course explores the wonder of the polar world and explains how ice has shaped – and controls – our planet. Science: the frozen planet is one of a series of 100-hour, flexible online courses introducing fascinating topics in science. It allows you to learn about this topic just for interest and enables you to try out an area of study before you commit yourself to further study. You can register and begin this course at any time and will have at least 6 months to complete it.

Standalone study only

You will not be awarded credits for studying this course. It is available for standalone study only and cannot be counted towards an OU qualification.

Short course

Short course code
This is a non-credit bearing course.
Study method
Distance Learning
Short course cost
See Registration
Entry requirements
See Entry requirements

What you will study

At any one time during the year ice and snow cover over one third of our planet: ice has shaped the landscapes, it determines the structure of the ecosystem and the animals that prosper, and it even drives our global climate.

There is more to the two polar regions of our planet than the cold temperatures and hardship we frequently see in the media. The two poles are very different: a large part of the Arctic is an ocean covered with ice a few metres thick, whilst the Antarctic is mostly covered in ice kilometres thick. But the physical controls on the environment are the same in both cases. In the winter darkness, temperatures decrease and snow and ice advance towards the equator, sometimes leaving the great cities of northern Europe uncomfortable for humans. Yet still, charismatic and well-known wildlife such as whales, walrus, penguins and polar bears flourish in the ecological niches that the polar environment creates. But it is not just the animals – throughout our entire history humans have only known a planet shaped and controlled by ice.

This course is about the science of the frozen planet. It is about the physical controls on the shape and character of our planet over millions of years through to the climate we experience today. You will investigate the different environmental niches where wildlife flourishes, and the strategies some species have developed to exploit them. You will discover the influence of humans on the environment and the motivations and discoveries of the early polar explorers. The poles are justifiably important but also vulnerable and so, throughout the course, you will learn about their current management and fate in the near future.

The course is based on specially written OU study materials which have polar-focused activities and film clips from the spectacular Frozen Planet BBC television series about the environment, the science, and the wildlife.

By the end of this course you should be able to:

Demonstrate general knowledge and understanding of some of the basic facts, language, concepts and principles relating to polar science. In particular:

  • core concepts in physics, biology, chemistry, geology and basic mathematics that underpin our understanding of the polar world
  • processes and interactions (physical, biological, chemical and geological) which shape the polar environment at different temporal and spatial scales
  • terminology, nomenclature and classification systems used in polar science
  • methods of acquiring, interpreting and analysing information from the polar world
  • the value of, and need for, multi-disciplinary approaches in advancing knowledge.

The course features the distinctive strengths of The Open University (OU) from its years of expertise in distance learning:

  • The convenience of accessing its clearly presented and sequenced materials, activities and support whenever suits you and wherever you have access to the protected course website – if you prefer, you can print key materials to work on them offline.
  • The support of an expert learning adviser who can clarify study materials, answer questions and help you relate the course to your specific needs.
  • An online interactive quiz that you can attempt as many times as you wish to help you test your own learning.
  • A statement of participation from the OU which you can use to demonstrate your engagement with the course. (N.B. The course does not carry academic credit points.)

Some of the pages within the course contain links to external sites. Accessing these sites is part of the allocated study time for the course. You may also wish to undertake additional background study or reading if some of the concepts introduced are completely unfamiliar to you.

Learner support

Expert, confidential learner support is available when you need it from a learning adviser, who will respond to you directly. Other support is available via the course forum, dedicated website and computing helpdesk.

If you have a disability

The course is delivered online and makes use of a variety of online resources. If you use specialist hardware or software to assist you in using a computer or the internet you are advised to contact us about support which can be given to meet your needs.

Course length

This course will require around 100 hours to complete.

Teaching and assessment


There is no formal assessment on the course but you will be able to assess yourself on your factual knowledge through an online quiz that gives detailed feedback to help your learning.

Future availability

This page describes the course that opened in February 2021. You can register and start this course at any time up until 31 January 2022, and study at your own pace. Future availability of this course is confirmed each year.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations, which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

    Entry requirements

    The course does not assume any previous scientific background and teaches the concepts and skills as they are required. It’s designed for people who are new to the subject area.

    Although a little basic knowledge of general science would be useful, all you need is an interest in the polar regions and how they affect the rest of the planet. You will have to be prepared to learn some basic science, such as physics, geology and biology in order to complete the course. If you have read popular books and magazines on the subject you will find the course develops your understanding and introduces topics that you have not met before.

    Mathematically you need only to be able to add, subtract, multiply and divide simple numbers. You should be able to read and understand written English of a style and complexity characteristic of a professional magazine or quality newspaper.

    You can study at your own pace and attempt the online quiz at any time before the end date for the course. Information about the end date is available when you register and will be at least six months after registration.

    If you want to see if this material is suitable for you, try a sample of the study material.

    Course length

    This course will require around 100 hours to complete.


    Start End England fee Register
    At anytime Flexible - see Entry requirements for more detail £170.00 Register

    Ways to pay

    Credit/Debit Card – We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron.

    Sponsorship – If this course is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could ask your employer to sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. Your sponsor just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.

    The fee information provided here is valid for short courses starting in the 2021/22 academic year. Fees for short courses starting in the 2022/23 academic year or later may increase in line with the University’s strategic approach to fees.

    What's included

    All learning materials, activities and study support are delivered entirely online.

    Computing requirements

    You'll need a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of 64-bit Windows 10 (note that Windows 7 is no longer supported) or macOS and broadband internet access.

    To join in spoken conversations in tutorials we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

    Our module websites comply with web standards and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

    Our OU Study mobile App will operate on all current, supported, versions of Android and iOS. It's not available on Kindle.

    It's also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook, however, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you'll also require a desktop or laptop as described above.