An Arctic classroom for a changing planet

Engaging children with the fragility of our changing planet can be a challenge. The team at Encounter Edu are bringing science to life by broadcasting live from expeditions direct to classrooms across the world.

Words by Jamie Buchanan-Dunlop
Photographs by Encounter Edu

There’s a small part of the Arctic that I call my own. It’s a three metre by three metre spot at the back of the UK’s Arctic Research Station, situated on the Svalbard archipelago. A shallow expanse of snow slopes down past grazing reindeer to the shores of a fjord. On a clear day, you can see the jagged ridge of the Kongsvegen glacier, and further still the triple pyramids of the Tre Kroner peaks more than twenty miles away.

I have squatted, kneeled, sat, and stood on this small frozen square for hundreds of hours. It’s a strange parcel to claim, but it’s the place where an idea came to fruition. It’s the spot where I’ve spoken to classes in 54 countries about this changing environment over the past six years. It’s Arctic Live’s home.

The journey from a dilapidated classroom in South East London to the Arctic was not pre-planned but driven by wonder and obsession. The first thing that is different about the Arctic is the cold. It is not a cold that is different by degrees, but a different kind of cold, a cold like a wild animal, clawing and biting at any exposed patch of skin, a cold fighting its way through the layers of clothing needed to survive at these latitudes. It is also about the light that creates wonder. Not just the ethereal cliché of the aurora, but those days when the air would freeze in a cloud of floating diamonds. The Arctic sun’s changing brilliance contorted distances, and the horizon would ripple with the golds and pinks of a midnight sun. 

My first visit to the Arctic was with the Catlin Arctic Survey expedition team in 2011. It was made up of four operations personnel and five scientists. As communications officer, it was my job to convey to students following the expedition online, the extraordinary field work and science being conducted in Arctic conditions. I did it out of our tented camp on the frozen ocean along northern Canada’s islands. 

It was here that I first experienced what became an obsession that has accompanied me on seven trips north. I had read the headlines about a warming Arctic, the reduced sea ice coverage, and the changes occurring in ocean chemistry more rapidly than at any other time in the past 300 million years. Here was a chance to not only experience it but test innovative ways of sharing this part of the world with young people around the globe. 

Our idea of environmental change is like a jigsaw puzzle, built up by the work of individual scientists toiling at the extremes of human endurance. The scientists I found in this remote region were not hardened polar explorers. They were researchers driven by their interest in the changing state of the polar regions. They felt the cold. They were homesick. They would wake up covered in frost from the condensation freezing in their tents. All this for data. 

Dr Ceri Lewis of the University of Exeter and Dr Helen Findlay of the Plymouth Marine Laboratory were fascinated by the copepod, a type of marine zooplankton and the most abundant on the planet. Every day, the scientists would travel to the sampling sites where they would drill through the sea ice to collect samples. These sample batches were used to see how these crustaceans might be susceptible to the changing acidity of the Arctic.

Dr Victoria Hill of Old Dominion University cored the sea ice surrounding our frozen camp searching for algae growing in the brine channels at the ice’s base. Algae and other organic matter can colour the Arctic waters, increasing the absorption of solar energy when the dark sea water is exposed in leads, the gaps between ice pans. Dr Hill’s research was about finding the missing factor from our sea ice loss models to understand why recorded decreases are outstripping projections potentially leading to increased coastal flooding.

Photographs by Encounter Edu

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Issue Six
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This feature appears in ISSUE 6: Reconnection of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue Six
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_arksen

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