September happenings in Arctic Studies

Arctic Studies class photo (trying to look chilly on a warm September afternoon in CT)

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Here’s what we’ve been up to over the past couple of weeks:

  • We looked at several different definitions of the Arctic (Arctic circle, Treeline, Extent of permafrost, July isotherm, and Political/cultural) and ultimately determined that they all have their merits and that we couldn’t decide on just one “best definition.”  We decided to make sure that we understand each of them, and we will use different definitions where appropriate to our studies.
  • We have been working on our map skills, brushing up on directions and distances, longitude and latitude.  The students (not the teacher) decided which Arctic geographic features that they needed to memorize, and they loved being able to determine this for themselves.
  • In preparation for a look into the seasons of the Arctic, we have been observing our shadows throughout the day.
  • This past week brought events that we felt were very important to our class: the People’s Climate March and UN Climate Summit in New York.  As an introduction to the issues surrounding climate change, we watched the movie “Disruption” in class.  Most of us felt a little anxious and uneasy as we began to look deeper into this subject. Finding ways for us to tackle climate change without becoming depressed and despondent will be perhaps my greatest challenge as a teacher this year.
  • Students learned about the Climate Reality Project and their mission to find solutions to the climate crisis.  Each student participated the “Why? Why Not?” video challenge, which asked young people ages 13-21 to submit short videos asking world leaders to address climate concerns.
This coming week, we will learn about GPS and how it works.  We will put our portable GPS receivers (phones) into action by going geocaching in the woods on our campus.  (And I just noticed that there are several geocaches hidden in Svalbard!  I’m kicking myself for not realizing this before my trip).

The Arctic Weekly assignment

An important part of the Arctic Studies class will be keeping up-to-date with current happenings related to the Arctic (and Antarctic) region.  

To start the year, I am asking each student to monitor at least 5 online sources that are somehow related to the Arctic/Antarctic.  These sources should be updated regularly, and can be tailored to suit each individual’s interests.

Each week, each student will identify one post or article that she found interesting and write at least one paragraph related to the post (what she learned, what it made her think about, what she would like to know more about, how it relates to class, etc.).  She will keep a running collection of her weekly write-ups in a google document that is shared with me.

A little humor related to our first Arctic weekly assignment:

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(articles in arctic studies?  aren’t they called arcticles?)

In our first week, students were able to find great information that interested them, and they wrote about such varied topics as: the new Antarctic marine life Atlas, the release of carbon into the atmosphere when ice melts, shipping lanes and oil drilling, polar bear tracking, satellite measurements of sea ice extent, emperor penguins, overfishing, and the status of the west Antarctic ice sheet.  Wow – good stuff! 

Here is one student’s weekly paragraph:

New satellite maps show polar ice caps melting at ‘unprecedented rate’: http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2014/sep/01/new-satellite-maps-show-polar-ice-caps-melting-at-unprecedented-rate

Firstly, I’m amazed with the precision of the data that the researchers have collected with the satellite. It is shocking to read that both the ice caps of Greenland and Antarctica – which are called “ice sheets” collectively – are melting at a rate of 500 cubic kilometers per year. Something very interesting that I didn’t know is that “Antarctic bedrock supports 61% of the planet’s fresh water”. However, I’d like to learn more about the detailed reasons why these ice caps are melting at the highest rate recently, and how these speedy meltings would affect the surrounding ocean currents.

This coming week we will create a class Concept Map about the Arctic, and we will look at different Arctic definitions and see if we can develop one that works best for us.

Arctic Studies: first day of school

After a summer of anticipation, the Arctic Studies elective has finally begun!  The class is under the umbrella of our science department, but I hope to make this a truly interdisciplinary course that is driven mainly by student interest.  The class is composed of 12 seniors, 4 juniors, and 1 sophomore.  

I began our meeting today by talking briefly about my Grosvenor Fellowship with National Geographic Education and Lindblad Expeditions, and using Google Tour Builder to quickly and visually show my route to Svalbard. 

I was very curious to find out a few things from my students on the first day, so I gave them a brief survey – here are the questions and results:

1. As you begin this class, how would you define “The Arctic”?  (write out a definition or jot down words/phrases that come to mind).

Most students chose to list words/phrases:

  • the north pole
  • very cold
  • ice and snow
  • above a certain latitude
  • polar bears
  • no penguins live there
  • dark in winter/light in summer
  • seals
  • glaciers
  • global warming
  • research and discoveries
  • unique animals/plants/terrain/weather
  • the ice that polar bears live on at each pole
  • whales
  • nobody lives there
  • bottom/top of the world
  • penguins live there
  • top of the world
  • not much sunlight
  • threatened because of pollution
  • very few people live there, and their way of living is different than ours
  • encompasses parts of Canada, Greenland, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia
  • tundra
  • arctic fox
  • hard to get there/not a typical vacation destination
  • land covered in ice
  • youngest topography on earth?
  • animals must adapt to global warming and melting ice

I see that right away we must at least sort out penguins and polar bears vs. Arctic and Antarctic!  I plan to spend our next couple of classes defining the Arctic and doing some mapping/geography to get everyone oriented.

2. Why are you taking this class?  (be honest!)

  • to learn about the Arctic
  • to learn about Dr. Sheldon’s expedition
  • to learn about the animals
  • because it’s a unique and new class
  • to help me discover fields I want to study in college
  • because I like science and look forward to learning something new
  • because I didn’t want to take biology
  • because I love marine biology
  • because I like the teacher
  • because previous science classes have been really hard for me, but this one sounds fun
  • because my mom is making me take a science class
  • as an international student, I want to take a class that is more extraordinary than what I can take at home
  • because it’s the only class that fits in my schedule
  • because I am looking forward to some choice in what I learn about
  • because I love world travel and learning about other countries
  • to learn about the animals and how the environment affects them
  • to learn how global warming affects the Arctic

I found these answers to be most interesting.  It’s good to be reminded that students have ended up in this non-required class for all sorts of reasons.

3. What do you hope to learn about in this class? 

  • wildlife/animals (10 students wrote about this)
  • geography
  • oceanography (2)
  • global warming (2)
  • snow and ice (2)
  • mountains
  • people in the Arctic: culture/lifestyle, jobs, studies, history (5)
  • pollution (2)
  • what can I do to help the Arctic?
  • how the environment is changing, and how people are affecting it (2)

Animals and humans appear to be the hooks that can help us get started.

4. Anything else you would like me to know?

  • My aunt and uncle have visited islands close to Antarctica
  • I want more labs!
  • My aunt works for Lindblad Expeditions
  • My uncle lived/worked in Antarctica
  • picture of the day: drawing of the day

Great to identify some family members of students who might be able to share experiences with us!

Ice Bears Trip: Day 9

Sunday 6/29

The weather was perfectly calm and bright as we pulled into Isfjorden for our last couple of hours onboard. I grabbed a 5 am cup of coffee and headed outside for one more moment of solitude with the mountains, sky, and water.

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As we pulled into Longyearbyen, we saw the Global Seed Vault on the side of a mountain just outside of town. After disembarkment, we hopped on a bus and headed up to the Vault to see it from the outside. Seed collections from around the world are stored here to protect genetic plant diversity on the planet in case a disaster strikes. While the vault is normally electrically cooled, the seeds are also stored under the permafrost layer so they will stay cold and safe even if the power goes out.

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Along our bus tour we stopped at one of the famous “polar bear signs” on either end of Longyearbyen. These signs translate to “applies to all of Svalbard” – meaning one can possibly run into a bear anywhere in the archipelago. Outside the city limits marked by these signs, people are required to carry rifles with them at all times. At one point we came across a man walking without a gun, and our bus driver stopped to inform him that he was being incredibly stupid. Our guide had joked with us about the unofficial rule that “nobody is allowed to be born or to die in Svalbard,” due to very limited medical facilities and the permafrost making burials impossible, so perhaps our unarmed friend was gambling that the rule would hold for him.

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Our tour continued on past sled dog yards, where the dogs were lying outside soaking up the warm 40 °F summer sun. In between two yards we spied a huge flock of common eider ducks, and our guide informed us that they hang out there because their main predator – the Arctic fox – does not dare go near the dogs. We continued on to Camp Barents, where we able to meet and greet sled dogs and see them perform their summer training – pulling wheeled wagons on dirt roads.

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After the tour, we had a bit of free time. I chose to walk around Longyearbyen and try to get a feeling for local life, which was a bit tough on a sleepy Sunday morning. But I did see lots of snowmobiles, which apparently outnumber the residents. Many of the colorful little houses in town had skis, toys, warm weather gear and piles of reindeer antlers adorning their porches.

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My time in Svalbard came to a close, and it was off to the airport for the trip back to Oslo. At the gate I grabbed a bottle of juice, and the science teacher in me was thrilled to see the volume of liquid was reported in deciliters – a unit I had never personally seen in the “real world.”  I while I waited for the plane I planned some new unit conversions to talk about with my students – including perhaps some kilometers to miles to help us Americans relate to this sign:

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My final glimpse of Svalbard was much like my first – peering down from a scratched up plane window at the snow-frosted mountains below me, with a tear in my eye as I considered how lucky I had been to experience this magical place.

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If you’re up for more (lots more) photos, visit my Flickr site for my full photojournal.

Ice Bears Trip: Day 8

Saturday 6/28

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This morning I snapped some photos of the ship’s logbook records, and vowed to take full advantage of our last day on the Explorer.  I then headed out to the bow before breakfast – the water was glassy and the wind was calm, and we were back in Hornsund.  We cruised deeper into the fjord this time, and I stood alone on deck for a while to watch the landscape reflected on the water.  Soon, however, I was quietly joined by everyone on the ship – because another bear had been sighted!  A healthy male this time, walking along the black sand shore at the foot of a retreating glacier.

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This bear, in this spot, could be the poster child for climate change – right?   No ice floes to be found, an ice bear on land, a glacier retreating.  But as I watched him, I put on my science hat and wanted to know more.  How long had this bear been here?  Where else had he been in recent weeks and months?  When and what did he last eat?  What is this glacier’s history of advance and retreat?  When did the sea ice disappear from Hornsund?  When will it return?

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Scientific research is one of the top occupations in Svalbard (along with coal mining and tourism).  I look forward to connecting my students with scientists in the field who are helping to answer questions like these.

Next, we headed even deeper into Hornsund and I hopped into a zodiac to cruise along the face of the Storbreen glacier.  We had the good fortune to witness this glacier calving several times – each time echoing like a gunshot and sending up a spray of water and causing some decent-sized waves.  The water around the glacier face was littered with the most gorgeous blue glassy glacial icebergs, most of them dotted with birds that let us visit them up close.

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After the cruise, it was time for the polar plunge!  A good number of crazy folks, myself included, lined up to jump in the fjord.  The water temperature was actually below 0°C/32 °F, since it was salty ocean water that freezes at a lower temperature than fresh water.  Periodically, icebergs had to be pushed out of the way to make space for the plungers, and the water was shockingly cold and literally breath-taking. Here’s a video of my plunge, taken by Demetria – you can tell that I was not at all interested in a prolonged swim!

As we cruised out of Hornsund today, we were greeted by another pod of humpback whales.  They were bubble net feeding and we saw several flukes in the air simultaneously.  Glorious!

Saturday brainstorming:

  • Have Linda and Don (guests who live very close to me) come talk to my class about their Antarctic and Arctic trips
  • Skype with naturalists and scientists working in the Arctic
  • Have students follow Arctic topics that interest them on social media and write up a weekly summary of something they discover.



Ice Bears Trip: Day 7

Friday 6/27

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This morning began with a chat about the ship’s bell with Piers.  It can be used for communication in case the electronics onboard fail.  And its gorgeous blue-green patina shows that it’s made of copper; this made me think about doing a photographic element scavenger hunt with my chemistry students.

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We hopped off the ship at Seelisberg on Freemansundet in Barentsoya, and this time I chose to do a slower-paced hike with my naturalist mentor, Sue Perin.  Sue helped me to take some temperature measurements of air/soil/plants/water at different points on the hike.  She also knew all about the tiny plants that populate Svalbard, and I was able to capture some macro shots of their gorgeous flowers. In this shot, I also managed to catch a pollinator: tiny flies are among the very few insects in Svalbard.

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We discovered some recent polar bear tracks in the mud, alongside tracks of geese and reindeer.  Lots of bones, too: reindeer, bird, and even a polar bear skull.

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After lunch and a bit of travel, we came across another polar bear onshore, far from the ideal ice bear environment that we were in on Wednesday.  The amazing Explorer staff managed to get all 140+ guests out onto zodiacs in short order and scoot us in a bit closer to land in the shallow bay.  The bear didn’t look very healthy and didn’t stick around long.  We crossed our fingers and hoped that he would find his way back to the ice.

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Today’s talks included Magnus on the history of polar exploration, Kenneth on his year spent as a hunter/trapper on Svalbard, and David on the National Geographic Pristine Seas Project.  It was a treat to hear about such diverse, fascinating topics from this group of experts in their fields.

After yet another divine dinner tonight: WHALES!  The boat was surrounded by a large group of them that included both fin and humpback whales.  They were feeding, and they were everywhere we looked, surrounded by birds hoping to catch an easy meal.  My lone previous whale watching experience involved seeing one gray whale for less than a second, so this sighting was overwhelmingly awesome.

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Friday brainstorming:

  • Whales and migration
  • Polar exploration project (involve mapping and navigation)
  • Environmental temperature data near home: how does it relate to my Arctic data?
  • Chemistry: element scavenger hunt

Ice Bears Trip: Day 6

Thursday 6/26

Holly, Demetria and I had the privilege of writing today’s Daily Expedition Report and contributing our photographs to highlight events of the day.  Here is an excerpt about our wake-up call this morning:

We awoke this morning at the bird cliffs of Alkefjellet at Kapp Fanshawe, on the west side of the Hinlopen Strait near Lomfjorden. The weather was a bit colder than we had experienced so far, so we donned our warm gear and headed outside before breakfast. As the ship travelled along the cliffs, we were able to observe hundreds of thousands of birds as they nested and rested, flew all around us, dove for food, took off from the water with wings flapping furiously, and landed in the water with legs splayed wide. Our main feathered friend at the cliffs was the Brunnich’s Guillemot, a black and white auk. These birds lay their eggs directly on the cliff ledges and can dive up to 300 feet into the ocean to find food. The sights and sounds of this extremely large nesting colony were an amazing way to start our day.

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Today we also enjoyed a lecture about Svalbard’s geology, glaciers, and sea ice – so much to learn!  In addition, we had a photography session with our resident amazing National Geographic photographer Susan Seubert, who gave some great tips on her workflow.

We were able to get off the boat for bit in a location that at first looked intimidating (steep hike) and a bit boring (nothing but rocks), but it ended up being one of my favorite hikes of the trip in the Arctic desert along the Palanderbukta Fjord.  After a brisk hike up a rocky hill, we began to look closely at the rocks and found fossils everywhere we looked!  We also got into a bit of a snowball fight and had a ball belly sledding down a snow bank.  At the end of the hike, we had to step over ice chunks on the beach – definitely not the norm for any of the beaches I have previously visited in June.

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Later in the day we continued north along the coast of Nordaustlandet and searched for bears on the fast ice of the Wahlenberg Fjord.  We did see a couple of bears at a distance and enjoyed cruising through a new form of ice for us – pancake ice!

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After dinner, we headed as far north as we could before encountering thick ice and fog – and we made it to 80.07°N!

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Thursday brainstorming

  • Different types of ice – learn about and simulate them in the classroom
  • Frozen Planet, Autumn episode? Guillemots
  • Geology of Svalbard