Polar Scientists Study Life at the Ends of the Earth

Do you want your studies to take you to the ends of the earth? If so, you might find some cool opportunities in polar science. There are many different majors that can help you get involved in a hot career studying chilly climates.

What exactly is polar science? Earl Blacklock is the communications advisor for an environmental organization. He says that polar science refers to physical and social science conducted in the Arctic and Antarctica.

Polar scientists study many different things. One of the big areas is environmental science. Environmental scientists might research topics such as the effect of climate changes on permafrost. Others might study the effects of mining on caribou populations.

Although environmental research plays a big role in polar projects, it is only one part of a broad range of scientific studies. Sociologists in the North research topics like modern society's impact on traditional lifestyles. Psychologists might look at the effects of isolation and darkness on people. Linguists study the culture and language of the native peoples.

"Virtually any type of science has an Arctic application," Blacklock says. Polar scientists include oceanographers, biologists, climatologists, meteorologists, geologists, zoologists, environmental assessment researchers, contaminants specialists, hydrologists, hydrometric technologists, engineers, aquatics researchers, sociologists, psychologists and linguists.

In the Arctic, polar research sometimes includes an area known as the sub-Arctic. This region is different because trees grow in the sub-Arctic.

"The Arctic in particular does not have strict geographic boundaries," says Dr. Mark Serreze. "It's not as neat as you might think." Serreze is a senior research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of Colorado. He has conducted many research projects in the Arctic.

Polar research is somewhat different in the Antarctic. No one lives there. There are no towns or villages. Scientists work at research stations operated by various countries. Most researchers stay on the continent during the summer months of November to April. They leave during the harsh winter months. Only a handful of scientists and support people remain throughout the winter.

Scientific projects in Antarctica involve activities like monitoring the penguin population, studying the effects of research stations on marine life, researching climate change and conducting geological studies.

Kathy Conlan is a marine biologist working for a nature museum. She has done research in the Antarctic. Conlan is Canadian, but Canada does not maintain a station in the Antarctic. She did her work at the U.S.'s McMurdo Station.

Conlan explains that many polar research projects involve scientists from several branches of science and from many different countries. There is an emphasis on countries working together.

"Anyone can work at another country's station so long as they get funded," she explains. "It's up to the country's granting organization to decide who and what they will fund."

This year, Conlan plans to join a research cruise with a team that is studying methane gas vents in the Weddell Sea. "Opportunities are terrific right now," she says.

There are good reasons why countries are interested in the world's polar regions. Serreze says that much of the interest stems from concerns about global warming and climate changes.

Until recently, many scientists thought that the climate changes occurred naturally. Now many scientists say the current patterns of change are too large for natural variations.

"Something else is at work," Serreze says. "We thought that the Arctic and the Antarctic would respond first to global warming, and that is what we are seeing now."

Blacklock agrees. "The polar regions are increasingly being recognized as the canary in the [coal]mine for planet earth." Early coal miners used to send a canary into a mine to see if there were poisonous gases. If the canary died, the miners left the area.

Scientists say global warming could affect everything on earth, including weather, climate, vegetation, wildlife and human life. There is a huge amount of ice in the two polar regions. If that ice melts, it could raise sea levels. It will also probably affect the earth's climates because the poles supply the cold air that modifies air temperatures. "

It will take a lot of research to understand and hopefully mitigate some of these changes," Serreze says. The melting polar ice might affect us in other ways as well. When the Arctic ice melts, it will open up the Northwest Passage shipping route. Instead of going through the South American Panama Canal, ships from Asia could take a quicker route across the Arctic, then down to New York.

As the Arctic becomes more open to shipping, it will create political and national defense issues. Therefore, we will also need policy developers and people to work on the geopolitical side of things.

"All of these things are attracting a lot of political interest and a lot of public interest," says Martin Fortier. He's the executive director of ArcticNet. One of ArticNet's goals is to train the next generation of scientists.

Fortier says that polar research projects are much bigger now than when he was a grad student. Most projects then had only two to three people. Small projects are still taking place, but most of today's projects typically involve many people.

For example, ArcticNet operates the CCGS Amundsen, an icebreaker ship used for Arctic research. The Amundsen carries 43 scientists working in various areas such as the atmosphere, sea ice, viruses and whales.

Anyone interested in polar research should have an interest in mathematics, science and computers, says Serreze. "It's a technological world, and it will become an even more technological world," he says.

Fortier adds that you will need at least a bachelor's degree if you're interested in polar science. He says that you must also be passionate about the work. Try to find out what really interests you, he advises. You will be researching in a very limited field, so you must have something that excites you.

Fortier also says that grades are important, both in high school and college. Good grades in high school can lead to scholarships. Professors tend to select scholarship students to participate in field studies and to help them with their projects. But if you don't get a scholarship, there is no need to be discouraged. "I have seen students without scholarships who became great researchers," he says.