Leveraging the Importance and Excitement of Polar Science
Interdisciplinary Approach

Life, research, exploration, and discovery in the Arctic and Antarctic involve the intersection of many disciplines, spanning the complete range from anthropology to zoology. Field research requires sharing limited logistics platforms, base camps, and ships for extended periods of time, which facilitates interdisciplinary discussion and collaboration, and the opportunity for a "systems" approach to study in the polar regions. Because polar research encompasses such a range of disciplines, polar education and outreach is a perfect way to involve diverse groups of learners in multiple content areas. Future programs should build on this strength of polar research, cultivating a "sense of place" for researchers, educators, students and the general public, "pride of place" for Arctic residents - especially indigenous Alaskans, and a sense of connectedness, relevance, and impact on the poles/poles influence on the rest of the earth. Polar environmental change including SEARCH (study of environmental Arctic change) - understanding the feedbacks of the poles on and also from the global system – links communities around the world, with the worlds at the ends of the Earth.

While much of the workshop discussion stressed the need for an interdisciplinary approach (see box), each discipline has its own attractions, which can be built on both in training the next generation of researchers and in engaging the general public. In a similar vein, while many programs can be bipolar, it is important to recognize, and capitalize on, differences between the poles. The Arctic has continents surrounding an ocean, and residents including indigenous peoples. The Antarctic is a continent shielded by vast fields of ice, with only a few logistics bases from which to launch programs.

An ice cave at Loudwater Cove on Anvers Island, near the Atlantic Peninsula.
An ice cave at Loudwater Cove on Anvers Island, near the Atlantic Peninsula. Photo credit: Zenobia Evans, NSF.

There are many points of connection between these seemingly remote places and broad-ranging societal issues. Connecting global themes with local issues helps engagement at the community level. It is important that people in, for example, the Midwest, understand how their actions affect the poles and how they are affected by polar change. Develop initiatives with the thought "think globally/act locally" - international activities with national outlets. Make connections between protecting local environments by promoting healthy environments at the poles. Polar researchers and educators should learn about their own community and make connections with it to show how it impacts, and responds to polar regions.

People: Anthropology, Heritage, Society

Any focus on the people and heritage of the poles should be viewed in a holistic "wellness" approach. It is important to continually monitor and be aware of our impacts on each other and to assess how to heal the land, relationships with different peoples, and communities. This will involve a systems-thinking approach that illustrates how all nationalities are connected, and how science, policy and human actions are connected.

Young student preparing
to go out in the field.
Photo credit: Don Perovich.

Specific Proposals:

  • Emphasize systems thinking and demonstrating the links between action and science and policies, and humans and natural systems. Monitoring the Earth’s systems is how people stay connected with the impact we are having as a species. Develop programs that focus on monitoring as an activity that is normal to all people.
  • Share seasonal changes, festivals, and unique events that occur in differing areas. Including the native customs as part of exhibits or tours is important in understanding their heritage and culture. "A day around the Poles" – a rotating spotlight on a normal day in specific areas: a snapshot of different people in differing locations, real people doing real things. Focus on similarities and differences. This could be linked with polar sunrise or sunset, and followed in a similar fashion as the turn of the Millennium.
  • Look at change around the poles and examine what is different. Look at what life in the poles was like for indigenous populations and researchers during the first IPY more than 100 years ago, and the IGY 50 years ago.
  • To have impact, coordinate efforts, develop synergy, look for ways to optimize activities on all levels, and work together – much as "tipping the boat" takes all parties working together.


Parborlasia corrugatus (proboscis worm)
Parborlasia corrugatus (proboscis worm). Image credit: Henry Kaiser, NSF.

Start with what people think that they know about polar organisms – and then go beyond the charismatic megafauna of polar bears, penguins and whales to look at the diversity of adaptations to life in extreme environments. Take advantage of the "wow" factor of unusual biota and extreme conditions for life to entice the public.

Specific Proposals:

  • Assess what people already know, what they don’t know, and build from that. For example, what kinds of life exist under the ice?
  • Emphasize diversity, abundance, and distribution of marine and terrestrial life; include fossil records such as Antarctic trees and Arctic dinosaurs. Examine fossil records from the poles using ANDRILL and show how you can use biota as temperature proxies. Show how plate tectonics and isolation affected Antarctic development
  • Life in extreme environments: use this concept to hook the media. Explain interesting adaptations to survive – and thrive – in severe environments and links to climate change
  • Use and re-release excellent materials that already exist: e.g. Audubon, National Geographic, Peterson’s Guides. Involve tour companies/field guides for tourists and adventurers
  • Create a polar postage stamp series with polar flora and fauna (as well as history and current research)


Graphic from Intergovernmental Panel on climate change
Graphic from Intergovernmental Panel on climate change.

How do the polar oceans affect the rest of the world? How do humans affect the polar oceans? What are the impacts of these changes? Show the connections between the Arctic, the Antarctic, and the rest of the world. Show how these connections have changed through time, and how much time they take to change.

Specific Proposals:

  • Focus on the effects of changes in polar oceans: deep circulation and abrupt climate change, changes in sea levels and coastal ecosystems, their interconnection and impact on human societies and international security and commerce
  • Encourage stakeholders to promote the important role of polar oceans to the broadest audience: industry, informal science community, professional organizations
  • Encourage people with polar ocean resources and data to submit to Digital Library for Earth System Education (DLESE), National Science Data Library (NSDL) or other agent to make information widely available (see insert example).
  • Develop curricula and activities that bring into the classroom the concepts of the layered ocean, and the importance of convection and thermohaline circulation


Ice defines the poles: from permafrost and glaciers on land to sea ice in the ocean, ice is both a surface to walk on, live on, and a barrier to overcome. Because ice and snow are accessible to a majority of communities, local activities can be used to make connections to conditions at the poles. Because it shifts phases so easily, ice is vulnerable to change. And ice has a sensory impact on people: they like to touch, see, and feel ice. Be creative with ice to bring it alive through exploration. Focus also on the power and danger that snow and ice can represent: the avalanche, the hidden glacier bas. These are all items that fascinate and thrill, offering an opportunity to engage the public.

PARTNERS project
PARTNERS project. Photo credit: Max Holmes.

Specific Proposals:

  • Focus on the link between surface run off (water) and snow precipitation. Seasonal storage of ice and snow and then a spring release. Place these local processes within a larger context
  • Use the 5 senses to create hands-on approaches: take snow machines to southern areas to make snow for southerners, explore different types of ice that form locally and contrast them with ice in polar regions: lake, sea, glacier, etc. Make ice: freeze ice on cookie sheets or layer by layer in a tube to show how layers archive temporal changes
  • Create problem-based learning units examining crystal growth, phase changes, glacier flow with silly putty. Integrate activities with learning standards
  • Pair science and education together to provide a complete picture for students. Use maps, models, etc., to show how ice has affected the world we live in, including changes in climate and sea-level.
  • Share personal experiences with students, i.e. Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating (TREC)) using webcams, journals, etc.

Geology, Geophysics, Meteorology, Space Science

International high energy neutrino observatory
International high energy neutrino observatory. Image credit: Jim Madsen.

From the solid earth to the atmosphere and space the poles play important roles in geodynamics and our understanding of earth and space systems. Many questions still remain: do the poles control climate? What really lies beneath the massive ice sheets of Antarctica, and the drift ice of the Arctic?

Specific Proposals:

  • Use the poles as an observatory, i.e. messengers from space/ Ice Cube (international high energy neutrino observatory being built on the South Pole), Antarctic Muon and Neutrino Detector Array (AMANDA) and Balloon Observations of Millimetric Extragalactic Radiation and Geophysics (BOOMERANG) )
  • Emphasize exploration of unknown territory (massive ice sheets hiding the Antarctic continent, mountain ranges and Lake Vostok; sea ice covering the Arctic and the Gakkel Ridge)
  • Compare extreme environments with those on other planets and moons
polar image
Photo credit: Stephanie Pfirman.