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Scholar ship

The Students on Ice expedition to Antarctica is no ordinary cruise

By JOEY FITZPATRICK | JUN 08 2009
on ice 6

It’s all hands on deck, and the moment is quiet with awe and wonder. On this grey February afternoon, after almost three days through the stomach-churning Drake Passage aboard the M.V. Ushuaia, more than 70 young people are getting their first glimpse of Antarctica here at Elephant Island.

Over the next six days these 54 university students, 17 high school students and nine teachers (along with seven staff and two journalists) will make twice-daily zodiac landings on the Antarctic Peninsula. They will climb ice caps, snap pictures of penguins, tread warily around basking seals, extract ice core samples, visit research stations and even take a swim in a dormant volcano. As participants in the Students on Ice Antarctic University Expedition 2009, they will study in what may well be the world’s most inspiring classroom.

Marianne Douglas well understands the lure of the polar regions. Fascinated by natural history and the connections between biology and geology, the University of Alberta professor has been visiting Canada’s Arctic since beginning her graduate studies in 1986. She had her first “Arctic moment” while standing on a cape on Ellesmere Island.

“I looked over and realized that what I had been interpreting for a couple of days as a cloud bank was actually the Greenland ice sheet. That’s how immense it is,” she recalls. “It was a true visceral experience.”

On this expedition, her fourth visit to the opposite polar region, she is teaching a field course entitled Cold Regions Geoscience: Antarctica. Bringing students to the Vernansky research station on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula is particularly significant. Formerly the Michael Farraday station (a number of years back the British turned it over to the Ukrainians, who renamed it after one of their own renowned scientists), this is the place where some of the first data was collected that confirmed that the stratospheric ozone layer was thinning. As the tour guide shows the students around, taped to the wall are daily measurements from the upper atmosphere going back some 50 years.

“This really illustrates the value of taking long-term data. We don’t always see an environmental problem developing until it hits us in the face,” Dr. Douglas points out. “Those scientists eventually got a Nobel Prize for their work.”

While they’re in this unique research environment, students are also able to take part in some practical measurements and observations. The ocean currents are monitored regularly from the ship using a conductivity depth profiler, a device that records temperature and conductivity, or salinity, in a water column. On tiny Paulet Island, the class extracts a water sample from a lake rich in algae and penguin guano, and back on ship the students put drops under the microscope.

“This gave us a quick snapshot of the biology, but it really was to show students the potential of research that could be done here,” Dr. Douglas says. “For example, a sediment core from the bottoms of these lakes could answer some very basic questions, like how long penguins have been nesting there.”

Inspiration and education are the twin pillars of Students on Ice, an award-winning organization now almost a decade old. Through the program, more than 1,000 students, as well as teachers, scientists and even a few lucky journalists, have travelled to Canada’s Arctic and the Antarctic.

“I thought if we could give young people this kind of experience early in life it could inspire them and help define their future,” says Students on Ice founder Geoff Green.

For most of its first decade, Students on Ice brought high school students on its expeditions. But it became clear that the actual science involved in studying the polar regions is more suited to a university level. So the 2009 Antarctic expedition was to be the world’s first “floating university.” (After a minor accident with the ship caused the cancellation of a high school expedition in December, rearrangements were made to bring a number of high school students along on the February expedition.) The majority of the group is Canadian, but there are also students from Germany, New Zealand, United States, Bhutan, Malaysia, the United Kingdom and Japan.

Not every participant is majoring in glaciology or earth sciences. Shamin Mohamed, a third-year student in the bachelor’s of health sciences program at the University of Ottawa, sees a direct link between environmental degradation and the spread of infectious diseases, including AIDS. Mr. Mohamed has already made his mark in the world. In 2005 he was named one of Canada’s Top 20 Under 20 by the group Youth in Motion for his volunteer work as founder of LetsStopAIDS.org, an organization with more than 400 volunteers across Canada and around the world. He conceived and launched this NGO when he was 15.

“When I heard that this was the first university Antarctic expedition, it was something I really wanted to be part of,” he says. His group’s latest initiative is a campaign called Spread Trees, Not AIDS, addressing both environmental degradation and HIV infection. “Many people don’t see the correlation between the environment and AIDS,” he says. But the interconnectedness of desertification, poverty and the spread of infectious illnesses is well documented.

“Events in Antarctica have an impact in other areas. A rise in ocean levels leads to flooding, increased mosquitoes, malaria and weakened immune systems,” he says. “It starts with the environment.”

Coming up with $12,000 for the voyage is no easy task for your typical university or high school student, and many were innovative in their fundraising efforts. Émilie Hébert-Houle, a student at Université du Québec à Montréal, raised money by creating and selling 300 calendars containing Antarctic images and eco-friendly tips for each month. She began spreading the message early, visiting with five elementary school classes in the weeks before the expedition. The students followed her progress on her blog (“Follow the Voyage” at uantarctic.org), and she met with them again upon her return.

“I want to leave them a message about getting involved in their community, to realize their role as a citizen of the world, and being conscious of the impact you have on that world,” she says. “When you sit back and don’t do anything, the world can seem scary. But when you start to take action it doesn’t look so bad.”

North meeting South

Until quite recently, most of Canada’s polar research has focused, understandably, in its own hemisphere. On this trip, Luke Copland and the students in his course are laying the groundwork for Canada’s first long-term Antarctic monitoring station. A stake is planted on the surface of a small ice cap on the west side of the peninsula that will measure the height of the cap, and whether it is losing or gaining mass.

“In the long term we would like to have a satellite-connected station that would record temperature, air pressure and radiation levels,” says the University of Ottawa glaciologist. “Data would be recorded every hour, and accessed on a web page back in Canada.”

With its temperature increasing at half a degree Celsius per decade, the Antarctic Peninsula is warming at a rate faster than almost anywhere else in the world. Anywhere warmer than minus five is too warm for ice shelves to exist.

“That minus-five line was at the northern end of the peninsula 50 years ago,” Dr. Copland points out. “But since then it’s come a long way south, and that’s why we’re seeing the ice shelves break up.”

emperor penguin
A Gentoo penguin attends to her young.

The Larsen A and Larsen B ice shelves, each comprising thousands of square kilometres of ice, broke up in 1995 and 2002 respectively. A broken ice shelf does not in itself raise ocean levels, as the shelf was already floating. But it’s still an ominous event, Dr. Copland explains.

“The shelves are like bathtub plugs, stopping the ice behind, so now we’re seeing the glaciers that were behind those shelves accelerating towards the ocean at three or four times the rate they were before,” he says. “This was a huge wakeup call, as it’s just been in the last 10 years that we’ve realized that the ice shelves do have a big impact on the glaciers.”

The Ronne and Ross ice shelves are the largest in Antarctica, and each helps hold back the West Antarctic ice sheet. Were this entire ice sheet to advance into the ocean, global sea levels would rise by six meters. If this sounds alarmist, consider that during July and August of 2008, almost one-quarter of Canada’s ice shelves were lost. “Those ice shelves had been there for anywhere between 3,500 and 5,000 years,” he says.

The critical role of ice in the planet’s future is attracting a growing number of students to the field of glaciology. Sierra Pope is taking a master’s of science program in geography at U of Ottawa (the department where Dr. Copland teaches), with a specialization in glaciology. Her fascination is both with the glaciers themselves, and what they mean in the larger picture of the global ecosystem.

“Our generation has really been inundated with the message of climate change,” she says. “I think a lot of us are going into the sciences because we want to understand what’s behind it.”

Dateline Antarctica

Much of the mystique of Antarctica is due to its remoteness and inaccessibility. But that is changing, as some 35,000 visitors make their way here each year aboard cruise ships. Port Lockroy has a gift shop and museum, and visitors can send a postcard with an authentic Antarctic postmark.

Pat Maher did his doctoral studies on the impact of humans on Antarctica and now teaches outdoor recreation and tourism management at the University of Northern British Columbia. He’s researching the impact of tourism on the southern continent, and these students are willing test subjects. Three of them disembark the zodiac with a heart rate monitor and GPS strapped to their bodies, and a video camera strapped to a headband.

“The GPS monitors where they walk, how far they walk – their impact on Antarctica,” Dr. Maher explains. “The heart rate monitors and the cameras are to measure the effect Antarctica has on them – what excites them, what they are attracted to.”

None of this has been tried before, he points out. While they will gather data, the exercise is basically a proof-of-concept into a way of measuring the impact of tourism.

“One of the keys to better managing sites is understanding what the visitors are looking for. This could help put some hard, physical science behind what is mostly anecdotal evidence,” he explains.

The big picture

The birth of the modern environmental movement is generally traced to two seminal events in the 1960s. The first was the publication in 1962 of Silent Spring, in which author Rachel Carson alerted the world to the harmful effects of pesticides. The other transformative moment was the Apollo astronauts’ iconic 1968 photograph of the earth from the moon. People the world over gazed at that image, and saw our home as a finite world in an infinite universe.

The spread of ideas and images is still at the core of raising environmental consciousness, and Students on Ice alumni are part of a new generation of activists and messengers.

John Park went to the Arctic with Students on Ice two years ago. Now the Toronto high school student is spearheading an effort to get the federal government to put oil-spill contingency plans in place for the Beaufort Sea.

It was a telephone conversation with two Students on Ice alumni in the summer of 2002 that helped convince then-environment minister David Anderson that Canada should ratify the environmental protocol to the Antarctic Treaty. “Six months later it was given royal assent in the House of Commons, and is now law,” Mr. Green of Students on Ice points out.

After visiting the Arctic in 2007, Beijing student Sun Ye told Mr. Green she was going to write a book about climate change. Last year her book was published by Science in China Press, and distributed throughout the country.

Many of the Students on Ice plan to visit elementary and junior high schools on their return, to give presentations on their trip to Antarctica. Sierra Pope says that while the science of climate change can be complex, the message she will bring into classrooms is straightforward: “Try to think about your place in the world, and your duty as a steward for the environment.”

 

On board M.V. Ushuaia

Good morning, Students on Ice

On Ice 2
On board M.V. Ushuaia

Geoff Green’s voice on the intercom is the first thing most students hear on a typical day, if there is anything typical about a day in which you may see a humpback whale before breakfast.

The M.V. Ushuaia has been sailing all night through the channels and archipelagos on the western side of the Antarctic peninsula, and after a hearty breakfast it’s time to suit up. On-shore adventures occur at least twice each day – morning, afternoon, and on one occasion even before breakfast.

Each transfer between ship and zodiac includes two important rituals: the thorough washing and scrubbing of the boots to prevent contamination (of both the continent and the ship); and the head count by Students on Ice coordinator Niki Trudeau. As each student descends the gangplank to a zodiac, and again when they ascend several hours later, their name is meticulously crossed off Niki’s clipboard. Meticulously. Getting left behind in Antarctica is a prospect best not thought about.

There is a code of ethics while on land. Take nothing but pictures and memories; leave nothing but footprints. Even a pebble is potential nesting material for penguins and should not be disturbed. The temperature is surprisingly moderate – averaging from minus 5 to zero Celsius – this being the Antarctic summer. Sunscreen is a must in this ozone-depleted region.

Back on ship before supper, there is time for socializing, reading and blogging. After the evening meal, everyone can attend a film or lecture in the lecture theatre. The last official event of the day is a wrap-up session in the lounge, in which we recount the day’s events and preview the following day’s. The session closes with a sea-dog story from Scobie Pye, a zodiac pilot who’s been sailing the world’s oceans since leaving home some 40 years ago, and who once met a descendent of Ernest Shackleton. For an example of one of Scobie’s yarns, go to youtube (Iceberg Diving).

The word “numinous” comes up frequently – sometimes during a lecture or evening meeting, sometimes jokingly at the dinner table, and other times just free-floating in the on-board collective sub-consciousness.

Numinous: adj. spiritually elevated; awe-inspiring; sublime.


Reporter’s Notebook Podcast: Joey Fitzpatrick tells Peggy Berkowitz about his trip on board the 2009 Students On Ice Antarctic University Expedition. Click here to listen.

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  1. Kay / June 8, 2009 at 1:33 pm

    Great news! There is nothing like a trip to Antarctica. By the way the first picture is a gentoo not an Emperor penguin.

  2. Leo Charbonneau, Deputy Editor, University Affairs / June 8, 2009 at 4:41 pm

    Thank you, Kay, for alerting us to the misidentified penguin. We’ve made the correction in the photo caption.

  3. Don Folz / October 12, 2010 at 8:29 am

    This looks and sounds like a wonderful experience for young people.

    Where can I find more information about the program?

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