Connecting Real Science to Students at the Bottom of the World: Get Your Class Involved!

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Connecting Real Science to Students at the Bottom of the World: Get Your Class Involved!

Michelle Brown

On November 1st I flew to Christchurch, New Zealand, and then onto McMurdo Station, Antarctica to work with a science team from Texas A&M University to monitor the environment there. I am doing this as part of the PolarTREC program, which connects science teachers to the Arctic and Antarctic to help teachers and students learn about the cutting edge science there. For five weeks, I will be posting daily journals on my PolarTREC page to keep students and the public updated on the work I will be doing there.  This is my second time working in Antarctica with this research team—I first went in 2011 while teaching middle school science in Austin, TX. You can see journals from this trip on the 2011 PolarTREC page.

People have been setting up shop on the tip of Ross Island (where McMurdo Station is today) since 1901. From 1901 to 1904, Robert Falcon Scott and his crew visited Antarctica on the Discovery Expedition. During their time exploring and conducting research, they built Discovery Hut. The hut sits on the coast of Ross Island, frozen in time. When I was at McMurdo Station in 2011, I visited the hut -- seal meat still sits on a pan from when the last explorer left it in 1904. 

Michelle visiting Discovery Hut

Michelle visiting Discovery Hut.

After Scott, the U.S. Navy started visiting Ross Island in the 1950s. They established a base there, called McMurdo Station, for researchers and support staff who have been visiting ever since. Before the 1990s there were no environmental protocols. Empty oil barrels left on the coast slid into the bay and now sit on the sea floor, sewage from the station emptied directly into the bay, and in the 1970s a landfill close to the station collected trash.

Oil barrels on the seafloor

One of many oil barrels found on the seafloor. Photo courtesy of R. Robbins.

In 1991 environmental protocols were enacted in The Antarctic Treaty, a document which countries participating in Antarctic research agree to. These protocols ensure researchers will no longer pollute the ground unnecessarily and also call for environmental monitoring. That is where my research team comes into the picture—they have been visiting Antarctica for 15 years collecting sediment from the land and seafloor to ensure humans are not further damaging the environment.

Collecting water runoff at McMurodo Station

Terry Palmer collects water runoff at McMurdo Station in an effort to monitor the station's environmental health.

Andrew Klein, a GIS specialist and team leader, along with Stephen Sweet, a geochemist, Terry Palmer, a benthic ecologist, Carl Green, a graduate student, and I (a PolarTREC teacher) will collect sediment from the land and seafloor around McMurdo Station. We also will collect sediment samples from control sites far from polluted sites. These samples will be sent back to Texas A&M University and analyzed for pollutants—especially hydrocarbons and trace metals.

The 2011 research team eats a breakfast at the airport before boarding the C-17. From left to right: Michelle, Joni, Andrew, Terry and Steve.

Using GPS to locate a sediment site

Michelle tries her hand at using GPS to locate a sediment site. Some wandering was involved.

Working at McMurdo Station is exciting and packed with scientific research. You and your classes can be part of this expedition by following my journals. To the right of each journal is an “Ask the Team” section, where students can ask questions to me and my research team. On December 1st my research team and I will host a webinar to celebrate Antarctica Day, discussing our work and life at McMurdo Station. The public can register to participate on the PolarConnect page. Lastly, I will be sharing Antarctica Pictures of the Day on my Twitter and Facebook.

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