Using Polar Sciences in Adult Basic Education Programs

Welcome to the discussion, “Using Polar Sciences in Adult Basic Education Programs”. 

Our general level of science literacy is a concern.  What do we know about the physical world we live in?  What do we know about the ways in which scientists do their work?  How can we use the results of scientific research to meet current and future challenges to our societies?  What resources exist to help us educate ourselves about these topics?

Big questions!  Where do we start? Well, for the next two weeks we’re going to look at the Earth’s “higher latitudes”: the polar regions of the Arctic and Antarctica.  Our guests, Lynn Reed, Lisa Eisner, and Sam Laney have worked in these regions and they are certainly qualified to participate in our discussions.  We all look forward to postings from you, the LINCS Science Community and others, as we consider many topics.

Those of us who are instructors in adult basic education programs work with many adults who are studying to pass high school equivalency exams.  One test section covers science, and test-takers are expected to answer questions about Earth’s systems, ecological networks, the effect of the environment on living things, how humans/other organisms affect the environment, and the ways scientists do their work.  Students also take exams in mathematics, language arts, and social studies.  Over the years, topics and resources in polar science have been used successfully to integrate these topics/skills related to high school equivalency examinations.

Our guests and I are optimistic that this polar science discussion/activity will be useful.  Here are some things we will do:

  • Describe current research programs in the polar regions and discover the reasons for “doing science” there
  • Discuss what is necessary in order to do scientific research
  • Identify the range of jobs in polar science research
  • Compare and contrast the Arctic and Antarctica
  • Discuss climate and weather
  • Identify educational resources related to polar science and evaluate their use in adult basic education programs

So, let’s get started! Stay tuned for follow-up postings and introductions.  Look for the second week's discussion of "Ice Sheets, Ice Cores, and Sea Ice" on the LINCS Science group, at

This two-week activity has been concluded.  Thanks to our guests, Lynn Reed, Lisa Eisner, Sam Laney, and Krista Longnecker.  Thanks also to everyone who asked such interesting questions, and especially to those who sent us questions from students in adult education programs.

Please continue to read the two discussion threads, and please make comments as you use the resources with learners.  Feedback is important!  In addition to these discussion threads, we will post a concise list of the resources that have been recommended by our guests.



Hello everyone,

By way of introduction my name is Sam Laney and I'm an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts. I became an oceanographer because I'm interested in photosynthesis in the ocean, so it might seem odd for someone with my interests to be working in the Arctic. After all, it's dark for half the year and the summer growing season is very short; not a recipe for success if you're an organism that makes your living off sunlight. But in a sense that's what makes the Arctic interesting to me: even the lowliest organisms at the bottom of the ocean's food chain find the Arctic to be an extreme environment, requiring unique strategies to survive.

I've conducted research on a number of ship-based expeditions, most to the Arctic in the Chukchi Sea north of Alaska, and mainly in the summer or late summer. I also work with autonomous (robotic) systems that we leave in the sea ice and that (hopefully) operate all winter. At the moment, a lot of my time is being spent preparing for upcoming field work this summer. This week I'm readying a set of instruments to go on a ship that will leave the Aleutians in May and survey ice-covered areas in the Chukchi Sea for a month. Another project involves preparing an under-ice ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to look for photosynthetic algae under sea ice in the Fram Strait (near Iceland) in July. It's perfect timing for an online discussion like this one, and I'm looking forward to dialogue about how polar science can contribute to adult basic education programs.

My name is Lynn Foshee Reed, and during the last two years, I have had the great privilege of serving as the Einstein Educator Fellow in the Division of Polar Programs at the National Science Foundation.  I have learned so much about the polar regions during my fellowship, and I will be sharing with you some of the polar education and outreach resources that have been created by NSF-funded projects. 

In 2012 and 2013, I traveled to Greenland to co-direct a summer program that brings high school students and teachers from the United States, Denmark, and Greenland to learn about current scientific research in the Arctic.  I am looking forward to discussing with you some of our field experiences – for example, measuring the discharge of water in a stream carrying melt-water from a glacier, or setting “ablation measurement” stakes on a glacier.   

I also have had the opportunity to travel to McMurdo and Amundsen-Scott South Pole Stations in Antarctica.  During these trips I observed and talked with researchers and logistics personnel to gain a better perspective of what it takes to do science on the “highest, driest, windiest, and coldest” continent.  We can discuss a variety of projects, such as the Long Term Ecological Research in the Dry Valleys, the conservation of the historic huts of Ernest Shackleton and Robert Falcon Scott, and everyone’s favorite, the Adélie penguin.   

I hope you will find, as I have, that polar regions provide a “hook” for students of all ages to become engaged in learning, from science and mathematics to social studies and literature.

Welcome! My name is Lisa Eisner and I am a biological oceanographer with a background in phytoplankton and zooplankton ecology and fisheries oceanography in sub-arctic and arctic regions (Bering and Chukchi Seas). This high latitude region is extremely interesting with a great deal of variation in recent years due to changes in climate and sea ice coverage. Currently, I work at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) conducting surveys on board fishing boats (trawlers) and NOAA research vessels.

Our fisheries oceanography surveys focus on understanding the health and abundance of Alaskan fisheries (e.g. salmon, pollock, and cod) in response to climate change. We conduct surveys (cruises)  during late summer and early fall and to collect juvenile fish, prior to their first winter at sea, a time of high mortality. We examine the prey base for fish by looking at fish diets (microscopic analysis of stomach contents of dissected fish) and by collecting zooplankton using bongo nets (paired nets) which are towed obliquely through the water from the sea bottom to the surface. Our research shows that when the climate is colder there are more large energy-rich zooplankton in the water and in fish diets, and fish have a higher energy content which enables them to better survive winter. To characterize fish habitat and understand how the marine environment is changing, we also collect physical oceanography data using a CTD (Conductivity–Temperature–Depth instrument) equipped with a fluorometer to measure chlorophyll a (a proxy for phytoplankton biomass) and a PAR (photosynthetically available radiation, i.e. visible light), and collect water samples for nutrients and chlorophyll a (to calibrate fluorometer data). Data have been collected for the past 10 years in the Bering Sea (2003 to present) and form the start of a time series to monitor changes in both oceanography and fisheries. More information on this program can be found at and associated links. I look forward to your interest and questions!

Note that the contents of this introduction and any discussion comments are mine personally and do not necessarily reflect any position of the Government or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.


Thanks for your introductions!  For the other members of this Science Community of Practice, please join in by asking a question at any time.  We are all spread out in many time zones, so just jump in when you are on the LINCS site.  Also, if there are students who are reading and participating in this activity, please ask questions of our guests.  Any other polar scientists out there are welcome to join the discussion!

OK, here’s a starting point:

We’ve just heard about the specific research interests of our guests, as well as about some additional  polar research projects.  Could our guests please explain more about why research is conducted in the polar regions?  Do those areas of land and sea have unique conditions that make it interesting and compelling to do research and observations there? 

One of the reasons I am interested in Arctic research is that the area absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. As humans produce more and more carbon dioxide, the ocean has thus far shown an amazing ability to absorb some of the carbon dioxide. Whether this will continue into the future is unknown. In the Arctic, we do not even have enough data to say whether the region will continue as is, or will shift gears entirely and start releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Thus even at the most basic level, we lack sufficient knowledge to predict how the Arctic will respond to future changes in climate. While this is daunting, it is also exciting to be involved in such research that is seeking to ask basic questions about the Arctic.

There is increased interest in Arctic research since this is one of the regions that is changing most rapidly, resulting in rapid reductions in sea ice. The extent and thickness of sea ice can affect biological processes from primary production (growth of phytoplankton) up to habitat and survival of large mammals like polar bears. The sea ice coverage and thickness in the Arctic has decreased substantially in recent years with an all time low (since recording began) observed in 2012 (for details see A seasonal (summer) ice free arctic is predicted to occur in 10-20 years or so, with the current open water period of 2-3 months increasing to 4-5 months. It is very important to conduct research to determine how loses in sea ice and increased open water could impact the marine ecosystem and its resources, since large changes are expected to occur over a relatively short time.

My name is Krista Longnecker and I am researcher at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. My current position is in a chemistry department, but my background and training are all in biology. I consider myself lucky to do research that crosses between biology and chemistry. Generally, my research interests are centered around how bacteria use organic carbon in marine systems. I have conducted research addressing this question using experiments in the lab which are coupled to sampling from research ships.

In the Arctic, my primary research interests involve the type of organic carbon found within sea ice. This organic carbon may either be produced by organisms living within the ice, or it may originate within seawater and get trapped in the sea ice as the ice is formed. One question from I hope to address is how future changes in sea ice in the Arctic will impact the transport of organic carbon in sea ice. Changes in sea ice have certainly been in the news, and I think that addressing topics such as what is in sea ice has the potential to grab people’s attention.

Here are two questions for our guests:

1. What do we know about the effects of climate change on polar plants and animals, on land and in the water, that appear -- or are known -- to be caused by climate change?

2. This winter, many in the U.S. and Canada heard about changes in the polar vortex as the cause of unusual cold. What does that mean? How credible are these changes as an explanation for unusual cold in North America? Is there evidence that the changes in the polar vortex are related to climate change? If so, what is the evidence?

David J. Rosen

These are great questions, David!  Perhaps your first question builds on my wondering if the polar regions are unique places for learning about the Earth systems.  That is, can we gather data in the higher latitudes that will aid in our understanding of climate change?

Two of our guests have already mentioned climate change: Krista Longnecker has talked about the Arctic waters being an area where carbon dioxide is absorbed, but that we don’t have enough data to predict how the Arctic Ocean will respond to changes in climate.  Lisa Eisner has said that sub-arctic and arctic regions (Bering and Chukchi Seas) are extremely interesting because of “…variation in recent years due to changes in climate and sea ice coverage”.  She says her research group is collecting physical oceanographic data to understand how the marine environment is changing and the effect of these changes on fisheries.  Lisa has also just posted a comment about Arctic research, the rapid loss of summer sea ice, and the effect of this loss on the ecosystem.  In addition, Lynn Reed has referred to the measurement of glaciers in Greenland, and Sam Laney has talked about the role of sea ice in his research.

These are also timely questions because the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change is meeting this month in Germany; some news reports have already mentioned the content of their upcoming reports.  And we have a discussion thread on the Science Community about resources for use with climate change topics.  Two of those are

The Global Climate 2001-2010: A Decade of Climate Extremes Summary Report

World Meteorological Organization (with fascinating charts and graphs for use in reading and analyzing data)

And from the LINCS online Resource Collection: "Climate Literacy: The Essential Principles of Climate Sciences" or

So, David, as we get answers to your questions, I’m wondering if we could set the stage by first discussing extreme weather events and the differences between climate and weather.  And to start things off, I wonder if our science community members could describe recent extreme weather events you’ve witnessed or read about.  We have community members from New Jersey, New York, Montana, California, and many southern states, all places which have been visited recently by extreme weather.  David, did you experience the polar vortex?

Susan asked: David, did you experience the polar vortex?

The weather forecasters in Boston said the unusual and sustained cold in February and March was due to the break up (breakdown, or breaking off?) of the polar vortex. My understanding is that a polar vortex is a long-lasting (permanent?) hurricane that could be over either of the poles, but I don't understand how it affects weather or -- if it does -- climate.

David J. Rosen

Following up on David Rosen's first question, about how climate change might affect polar plants and animals.

This is an excellent question, I think, in part because it's something that isn't brought up much in the media. A lot of people know about one type of important change in polar regions - loss of ice cover, both on the ocean and on land - mainly I think because it gets considerable media attention. Sometimes it's presented using very dramatic language, like when large parts of the Antarctic ice sheet break off (the Larsen B ice shelf - "the size of Rhode Island" for example), or each year when we reach the summer minimum ice cover in the Arctic (in 2012, "a shocking 18 percent less" than the year before). I would think it's more likely that the general public will take notice of this reporting; these are important changes in the physical environment to be sure. The subsequent effects on plants and animals doesn't seem to get the same level of media attention.

However, it's not as if there aren't important changes occurring in polar ecosystems, right now. With the photosynthetic algae I study, for example, climate-driven effects can potentially be very direct. In polar oceans, a lot of algae can be found living in sea ice, typically near the bottom of the ice where they can still get some sunlight but where they also have easy access to the nutrients in seawater. So from the ice algae's point of view, any long-term, climate-driven loss of sea ice cover is a big deal because sea ice is their habitat. For other algae that don't rely on sea ice for habitat, like those that live in the water column below sea ice, loss of ice will still be important but in a different way. These algae will live in a brighter world, getting much more sunlight than they would if ice cover and thickness remained as it is now. This is in many ways a new habitat for them, and the long-term effects on the entire ecosystem are not easy to predict.

Something similar that most people have probably heard about on the news has to do with loss of Arctic sea ice and how it affects polar bears and other large mammals like walruses. There too, loss of sea ice impacts these animals in a way that's easy to understand without requiring too much knowledge about polar bear ecology. Just informally, I've found the example of the polar bear to be a very useful one when discussing how climate-driven changes in polar regions can affect animals and plants there. Again, an excellent question from David Rosen.

The Joint Science Education Project students got to work in the field with a few graduate students from the Eric Post group. (Dr. Post is the Director of The Polar Center at Penn State University).   They are studying the timing of reproduction of caribou (reindeer) and plant phenology.   (By the way, "phenology" was an unfamiliar word for me and many of the students.  Wikipedia defines phenology as "the study of periodic plant and animal life cycle events and how these are influenced by seasonal and interannual variations in climate, as well as habitat factors (such as elevation).")  

The graduate students described the timing of calving and the nutrition and health of those calves depending on the richness of their mothers' milk. The reindeer milk quality and quantity are in turn affected by the food eaten, in particular the young, tender leaves of the shrubs.  The leaves of the shrubs are appearing earlier (due to temperature, climate change?), however the birthing of calves is not occurring earlier (linked to daylight, not temperature?).  

This is just one example of current research trying to understand the changes in plants, insects, birds, and mammals in the high Arctic.







The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) published just last month a good overview called "What We Know:  The Reality, Risks, and Response to Climate Change."  The document may be found at

This is a clearly written summary, and I believe it could be a great resource for adults and young people to get a concise explanation of the evidence as well as a better understanding of the risks.  It is text-dense; that is, it is not illustrated with charts or graphs.  Over the next two weeks, I will share a few additional resources that provide for more opportunities for adult learners to work on quantitative literacy at the same time, and I invite you to suggest others that provide excellent data visualizations.

The document concludes with, "In summary, responding effectively to the challenge of climate change requires a full understanding that there is now a high degree of agreement among climate scientists about the fact that climate change is happening now, because of human activities, and that the risks –including the possibility for abrupt and disruptive changes — will increase the longer greenhouse gas emissions continue."

This mention of greenhouse gas emissions leads me to share an animation that tracks the rising carbon dioxide measurements over time (CO2 is one greenhouse gas).     I really like how there are many graphs being produced simultaneously using time as the common parameter -- but I know that I would need to help my students, perhaps by providing them with a series of guided questions that could be answered in small groups.  

I wanted to bring up the topic of carbon dioxide, because one of the places where NOAA measures CO2 concentrations is at the South Pole.  (Another one is at Mauna Loa, Hawai'i.)  Why do you think Antarctica, and in particular the South Pole, is an important place to take such measurements?



These resources are so helpful!  Could we focus first on the animation about rising atmospheric carbon dioxide measurements over time?  As you say, there is a lot going on here in the animation, and perhaps we could go through and discuss the guided questions we might ask of student groups. 

For example, the first animation we see on the left really does look and act like a pump handle (will most people have seen a working pump handle?). 

Why there is so much up-and-down motion between ~25 degrees North and 90 degrees North? 

Could that be causing the relatively flat line (20 degrees S to 90 degrees South) to rise over time? What does that mean?

And, I'll repeat Lynn's question: "Why do you think Antarctica, in particular the South Pole, is an important place to take measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations?"

Any ideas from the community?  What might students say?  (If you are following this discussion in a class, does anyone have the time to discuss this with students and report back to our discussion?)

Dear One and All:

This is a great animation!  Like Susan, I'd like to unpack the animation a bit more.  One thing I noticed is that I can download the animation to my desktop and then enlarge it to the full screen ( It shows up very clearly on my "teaching laptop," an old Vista computer with a large screen.  I don't always have access to the internet when I teach but students could take turns working in teams at the computer.  Then, I think it would be interesting to pause the animation and ask students to describe the different types of information on the screen. Title, x-axis, y-axis, etc.  And, how the graph on the right relates to the graph on the left.  And, since I often focus on summarizing in writing, it wonder if students could create a paragraph that describes what this graph is saying.


Thanks, Cynthia, for giving us the tips about downloading this animation for viewing clearly and without Internet access.

I'm going to be brave and explain my thinking (and answer my own questions) about the first part of the information on the atmospheric carbon dioxide animation sent in by Lynn Reed. 

In looking only at the first left-hand animation, I notice the x-axis (labeled at the bottom) locates data collected from 90 degrees South to 90 degrees North.  The Y-axis (vertical line) is a measure of carbon dioxide in parts per million.  I notice that most of the oscillation (the rapid up-and-down action) seems to occur from ~20 degrees N and northward.  So, I visualize a map of the world, and I estimate that most of Earth’s land mass and human population can be found north of the Equator.  Can there be a connection?

Then I look at the “pump handle” and the oscillation; it reminds me of the actions of bellows, and also the action of lungs in respiration.  Could it be that terrestrial plants (and aquatic plants such as phytoplankton) in the northern hemisphere account for this oscillation as a part of their annual growth/decay cycle...taking in more carbon dioxide at certain times of the year?  However, that must be only part of the explanation, because why do the measures of carbon dioxide rise over time?  There must be more to it than the annual cycle of plant life, if that is it at all.  Something is acting like a pump, and the “handle” of the pump appears to be in the northern hemisphere.

As for Lynn’s question about the importance of taking measurements in Antarctica, particularly at the South Pole:  well, I note that the red dot on the graph represents Mauna Loa, and the blue dot represents the South Pole, Antarctica.  I can see that the station at Mauna Loa is surrounded by black dots (background conditions) and white dots (local signals) more frequently than at the South Pole.  Perhaps the measurements of carbon dioxide concentrations are less affected by environmental interference at the South Pole.  The carbon dioxide concentrations have still risen in number there at the South Pole, but that might be a result of what is going on near the Equator and in the Northern Hemisphere…that pump handle effect.

What do you think about these observations?  It really isn’t a complete explanation of the animation, nor for the rise in atmospheric carbon dioxide between 1979 and 2012.  Can someone else please help me out?


Hi Susan:

Great reading so far! I wondered most about the timeframe--the video begins around 1979, but we've had an industrial age in the western nations for over 100 years. What was the tipping point at which there was enough industry or other leading causes that began to shift the carbon dioxide concentrations in the air?

Best, Dahlia


As a native Montanan, I have experienced a lot of winters.  This one was definitely for the record books.  However, the one thing we kept hearing over and over is that this winter was just like the winter we used to experience as kids.  Really?  The snow was deep, but it is all relative when one is young, right?

This week I had my students watch PBS Newshour, “New U.N. report warns of dire climate changes”, at .  They are now writing in response to the following question:  What measures might be taken to minimize our contribution to climate change? 

Today one of the students shared that she had seen the following video on national news:

I told her I would ask this group’s opinion about the idea that soot from western wild fires is coating the ice with carbon particles which, in turn, may be causing the ice to melt.  What is your reaction to the NBC video?  NP =)

Norene Peterson

Billings Adult Education Academic Center

Hi Norene,

I think you have two questions in here. 1. What is our reaction to the video? 2. What do we think about the connection between soot-ice-melting?

First, to the video. I think that NBC did a nice job putting faces to research ideas that can be a bit abstract without over dramatizing the potential personal impacts (for example, there were no houses burning in the section on fires). Clearly the video caught the attention of your student, so it did a nice job engaging the public.

Second, to the science. The idea that soot is collecting on glaciers has shown up in a few studies, and we know that darker particles on the glacier surface will cause more ice melt. Think of an asphalt driveway in the summer, and compare the warm temperature of a driveway compared to an adjacent lawn. The driveway will absorb more heat from the sun, and will stay warmer longer compared to the lighter colored lawn. This ability of black particles to absorb more heat is what causes the increased melting of the glacier.

Of interest to me, is what happens to the soot particles. On a molecular level, soot is just another form of organic carbon. However, the microbes that live in and on glaciers turn out to not utilize the soot for carbon and energy, so the soot is transported off the ice sheet 'as is' into the neighboring water masses.

All in all, great question. I think you and your students are nicely linking current events and climate change.


True confessions up front, although I am not a true Science teacher, I have jumped into teaching Science for adult students studying for the GED.  I am learning much about this process from the use of OER's.  They have become a lifesaver for me.  I have started a unit on the study of climate change, in which I am utilizing a cross curriculum approach.  Recently my students and I watched a PBS video entitled Earth from Space.

In this video, many crucial questions are raised.  It specifically discusses Antarctica and it is described as a place where temperatures reach minus 110 degrees with 100 mile per hour gales.  It stresses the fact that life giving starts here and it plays a vital part in climate change.  It plays a fundamental role in maintaining global climate.  The big question is - how can this bleak, cold place affect the rest of the world, and specifically climate change?  This question is addressed in the video, but I am curious to hear from the researchers as to how they would address this question.  I will be doing a lesson on this tomorrow and I will add student questions from our lesson.


Hi, Deb,

Thank you for your questions and for the connection you gave to the video "Earth from Space".  As you get answers to your questions, we'll suggest some additional resources to be used in furthering the discussion.  We have heard many things about the Arctic, and now we can include more of Antarctica, as well.


In clss on Wednesday, we watched the Earth From Space video (part on Antarctica).  Then we read each of the introductions from the researchers.  After reading Sam Laney's introduction and hearing about his interest in photosynthesis in the ocean, my students started a good discussion on this topic.  One student had a question about this.  He is questioning how plants that are deep in the ocean can get enough light for the photosynthetic process to occur, and whether light is ALWAYS necessary for plant growh.  He said the purple passion plant (Utah, not ocean plant) does not need light to grow. A teacher gave each student a plant and told them to put it in a closet, not in the sunlight, as this would kill the plant.  He was saying that not all plants need sunlight.  He wants to know if the vitamins and minerals from the sea floor are enough to sustain ocean plants that get little, if any sunlight?

He has a second question about using containers to capture (and possibly filter) CO2 in the ocean and/or the atmosphere.  He wonders if there is any such technology and/or research being done to address this issue?

Thanks for any input anyone may have for this young man's questions..



Hi Deb,

Thanks for posting these comments, and glad to hear that your class is having fun with this discussion. I liked these questions because they're a great lead-in to a number of interesting things about photosynthesis and ocean plants. Here are just a few thoughts:

Vitamins and minerals: We (animals) are not that different from plants in the sense that both plants and animals need energy and nutrients to live and grow. Animals (like me, for example) get both energy and nutrients from the same source: food. When I eat corn, my stomach breaks down the corn into the starch, vitamins, minerals, etc. that my body can then use. The atoms that were 'corn' get repurposed as 'Sam'. In addition, I also get some of the energy that the corn plant was storing in its seeds, which would have helped the corn kernels sprout and eventually grow into new corn plants. So a meal of corn provides me with new material for my body, as well as energy to keep it running. This isn't the case for plants. Plants don't get nutrients and energy from the same source: you can give a plant as much Miracle Gro as you want but without the energy from sunlight (or grow lamps), you will not see much growth.

Do plants ALWAYS need light for growth? Well, I guess strictly speaking the answer is 'no' and you can prove this pretty easily. Go to the grocery store, buy some alfalfa seeds, soak them in water, and put them in the dark. You started with seeds, and a few days later you have sprouts, which seems like 'plant growth' to me. But, if you continue to keep the sprouts in the dark, will they mature into adult plants that can make their own seeds? My money is on 'no'. A parent plant gives its seeds just enough stored energy to sprout and give it a fighting chance to find some sunlight, but this 'fuel tank' in a seed is pretty small. It's got enough fuel to support sprouting for a few days or so in the dark, but not enough to sustain long-term growth in the dark for months or years. This you can also prove pretty easily, by leaving those spouts in the dark for a month or so. I guarantee *something* will be growing after a couple of months, but it will probably be mold, not alfalfa!

OK, what about a mature plant: can a mature plant continue to survive if you take away its source of energy (sunlight)? I think most people would say that it depends on how long you leave it without light. Obviously most plants do just fine overnight without the sun, but what about many days, weeks, or years? How long can a plant continue 'business as usual' without receiving new energy to replace the energy it uses up by living and growing? Plants in the ocean run into this problem in a big way. Most ocean plants are microscopic single cells, which means they go where the ocean currents take them. If a current pushes them down deeper into the ocean, they can survive a few days but unless they are brought back to the surface, they can't continue business as usual. Some ocean phytoplankton species can shut down their metabolism and basically hibernate (that is, *not* business as usual). Many species of ocean phytoplankton can survive up to six months in the dark, but in a dormant stages - not actively growing. It's part of the life cycle of many ocean phytoplankton, and a strategy to survive low-light conditions in the winter months. But, it's not a strategy for surviving a sudden change from light to dark. More often than not, phytoplankton that end up deep in the ocean, away from the sun, just die. This is why you find virtually all of the plants in the ocean living near the surface, in the top hundred meters or so, where there's ample light.

The same is roughly true for any plants that live on the seafloor. At most seashores, you can see seaweed attached to rocks or otherwise growing on the seafloor in shallow water. If you were to start walking into the ocean, heading to deeper waters, at some point you'd notice fewer and fewer plants on the bottom, and later in deeper water, no seafloor plants at all. This is largely due to the low levels of light you get, deeper in the ocean.

As for the second main question about CO2, there's definitely lots of research going on right now to study how we might trap or remove CO2 from the ocean. As you probably have seen in the news, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere affects the amount in the ocean. Plants are natural CO2 sponges -> what photosynthesis is, at the most basic level, is a biological process that uses light energy to convert CO2 into plant biomass and oxygen. There have been many oceanographic experiments to see what would happen if you fertilized the ocean, to try to grow more phytoplankton that (in principle) would absorb more CO2. This is a hot topic right now; a web search on 'ocean fertilization' will give you far more information than I can present here.

Great questions!



Thanks for this great explantion.  Tomorow, in class, I will be able to share this information and continue our discussion.  I know the young man who asked the questions will be happy to hear you responded,so thanks from both of us.  We will see what we come up with next.



I can add another dimension to the question about whether plants need sunlight to grow and what happens on the sea floor. Photosynthesis is certainly an important process when considering how plants on land and in the ocean harness light as an energy source. However, there are also microorganisms which can use chemical energy (chemosynthesis). In this process, the microorganisms combine a reduced chemical compound with an oxidized chemical compound, and they use this process to grow and produce new biomass.

The areas of the ocean where this is most important and visible is at deep-sea hydrothermal vents where the entire food chain is dependent on the ability of microorganisms to use the energy stored in chemical compounds. Thus, these are biological communities that can thrive in the absence of light. 

These are great questions, keep them coming!



Thank you so much for this new information.  This really helped a lot.  My student did not know the name of this process but this is what he was trying to explain.  We are doing further research into this topic and it is quite interesting.  We are creating a mind map with climate change in the center.  As we research different topics we add it to our mind map.  This is a new topic that we put on there and most likely will lead us to additional new and interesting topics.  Such as hydrovents.  We are adding that as well.


Deb, thank you for mentioning the use of PBS NOVA resources for adult students studying for high school equivalency exams.  As you know and others might see upon a review of the resources, the video you mention, "Earth from Space" can be seen in its entirety, or shorter clips can be downloaded or viewed on the NOVA website.  "Earth from Space" has a video simulation of Global Ocean Circulation  It gives us more information about the importance of the polar regions to Earth systems.

This is a project of PBS Learning Media; after a few visits to the resources, users are asked to join (no fee).  Supporting materials for each segment usually include connections,  a background essay, a listing of main ideas, teaching tips, and discussion questions.  Also given are the connections of the resources to national standards, such as the “Benchmarks for Science Literacy”.  Further resources in Earth science can be found through a search here[]=dc.subject_teacher%3A%22Earth+Science%22


Greetings!  This is a question for Lisa, Lynn, and Sam:

Most of my students have jobs and family responsibilities so traveling for work is very difficult. [That said, one of the adult students in our community college's biotech program did an internship with a rain forest team one summer while getting her associates degree and managed to travel -- thanks to family members who cared for her children.]  But, if students do need to stay close to home, what types of activities and support services do you see going on state-side with your project?

Cynthia Zafft

LINCS Region 1/World Education, Inc.

Hi Cynthia,

You touched on an interesting point, and one that is made clear to people doing research in the Arctic. Getting there is half of the battle! This is actually not unique to the Arctic, but is true each time scientists do research at field sites. 

One career opportunity that comes to my mind involves satellites and satellite imagery. The satellites that are remotely monitoring the Arctic and other regions of the globe are sending back large amounts of data. Some of these data are analyzed right away. However, the large volume of data from satellites means that some data sits in data archives just awaiting the right research question.

Hi Cynthia,

I want to share a couple of ways for students of all ages to be engaged with polar science "from home."  First of all, the NSF-sponsored "Polar Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating (PolarTREC) pairs teachers with researchers in either the Arctic or Antarctica.

While in the field, the teachers keep a detailed online journal, filled with observations, explanations, and photographs.  Students and other interested members of the public are encouraged to send in comments and questions through the "Ask the Team" feature.  Even after the expedition is complete, the journal entries can be used by teachers all over the world as assigned readings to spark discussions.  To give you just a sample of last summer's projects, there was a group working from Toolik Station in Alaska studying the Arctic ground squirrel.  The researchers were investigating "the circadian rhythms in arctic ground squirrels during the continuous daylight present during the active summer season and continuous dark of the 6-8 months of hibernation spent sequestered in a burrow. The team wanted to understand why arctic ground squirrels, unlike other arctic vertebrates, appear to maintain 24-hour rhythms during the active season."  

I mention this because there is another teacher  who will join the Arctic ground squirrel team from May 26 - June 19, and this might be a good expedition to follow this year!  And I certainly want to invite the LINCS community to follow the Joint Science Education Project team in Greenland from June 26 - July 19.   In fact there are 15 different PolarTREC expeditions that are planned during the next 12 months, each focused on a different research question.  

Secondly, I want to suggest getting involved with a "citizen-science" project, which may or may not involve polar science, but involves ordinary citizens in making observations and posting the data for scientists to analyze.  For example, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology sponsors the Great Backyard Bird Count.  NASA has the S'COOL program which asks students (and others) to make cloud observations.  The GLOBE (Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment) program is an excellent one, and it is more focused on earth observations (habitat, biodiversity, etc.).  In these projects and many others, the data collected by people all over the world can help scientists to detect patterns or anomalies for further exploration or to test theories or mathematical models.  

I hope that your students will get involved by following a PolarTREC expedition and/or participating as a citizen scientist!


Lynn, thanks for sharing the possibilities of following a PolarTREC expedition.  It is wonderful to be able to observe an actual expedition through this process. Has anyone on this Science discussion been involved in using PolarTREC resources??

As Lynn knows, PolarTREC also has valuable resources which can be used in adult basic education; these can be found at PolarTREC Learning Resources: 

One such activity is the “Mystery Solution Lab”, in which students conduct simple experiments to compare the interactions of different densities of salt water.  This leads to a discussion of ocean currents, both surface and deep water currents.  There is ample opportunity for measurement, observation, data analysis, and writing.

There is also a lesson on ocean currents and the behavior of convection currents.

Finally, PolarTREC contains links to the Cyber-based Interdisciplinary Science Educator (C-ISE) collection of resources centering on the polar regions.  Resources include activities, lesson plans, journal entries, and videos.

Social Science Collection:

Life Science Collection:

Earth Science Collection:

Physical Science Collection:

Lynn, your suggestion about participating in citizen scientist programs is also great, in that many skills we practice in adult basic education can be used through this participation: reading, using technology, observation, data collection, data analysis, constructing explanations, and communicating information.  Do any of you who are reading this discussion have experience in participation in citizen science projects??


This has been a wonderful discussion!

There was an earlier version of PolarTREC a decade ago.  Susan Cowles was the first adult basic education instructor to participate in “Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic”.  She went to Palmer Station, Antarctica in 2002 to spend several weeks with a scientific team investigating persistent organic pollutants in the Antarctic food web.  LINCS Region IV and Literacyworks (under the National Institute for Literacy) supported this project with Polar Science Station:

You’ll find Susan’s project, “POP Goes Antarctica?” at The material about the project was written for an audience of adult basic education instructors and learners.

Links to Susan’s daily journal, with many math problems, can be found at

A second adult education instructor from Oregon, Marian Tyson, went to sea on a research expedition to the Southern Ocean in 2006.  Her project was also supported by Polar Science Station.  “The Case of the Elusive Element” can be found at  Marian’s journals are also written for the audience of adult basic education instructors and learners.

Thanks, Paul.  That adventure seems like a long time ago, especially in terms of technological change.  I spent time uploading text and photos; then every twelve hours a satellite would pass over Palmer Station and pick up my journal articles.  This was 2002 technology; things have come a long way since then!  The project was funded by the Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation.

The main fieldwork for our team was to collect water, snow, and air samples for later analysis back in Virginia.  A lot of my time was spent in a Zodiac, bobbing around at the two nautical mile safe boating limit as we filtered water samples.  There wasn’t much content for journal articles, so I asked all members of the Palmer Station staff to contribute ways in which they used math in their work.  The carpenter, the electrician, the two cooks, the painter, the radio operator, the maintenance supervisor, and many other people were willing to contribute math problems in the context of their work.  Each math problem was accompanied by photos of the person at work and the buildings and surroundings at Palmer Station.

Some of my favorites were “Maggie Gets Dressed”, in which a scientist gets ready to go SCUBA diving in Antarctic waters

“Hat Math”

“What Time is that Phone Call?”

“Our Fresh Water”

“The Freshies Arrive”

A few years later we developed a professional development program in Oregon, in which we used topics in the ocean sciences to teach basic skills.  This was a collaboration with the College of Oceanic and Atmospheric Sciences at Oregon State University, Oregon Sea Grant, the state of Oregon Department of Community Colleges and Workforce Development, and LINCS Region IV and Literacy Works (National Institute for Literacy).  As an extension of that program, seven Oregon adult basic skills instructors were able to go to sea with teams of research scientists.  All of the information about the research and the daily journals of the instructors were written with adult basic education in mind.  The journals contain great questions involving math, geography, science, critical reading, and history. The reports of their work and the ocean science connection can be found at Ocean Science Station   Because Marian Tyson was on a research cruise to the Southern Ocean, that project and her journals can be found, as Paul says, at Polar Science Station:



Hi Cynthia,

I wanted to chime in about marine science jobs that can be done without a lot of travel. For my job at NOAA, I usually conduct field work only 3-4 weeks a year. Others do not go to sea at all.  One of the big reasons is that after collecting field data (lets say for 3 weeks out of the year, in my case) the remainder of the year is spent analyzing the data (either conducting laboratory analysis of processing electronic files), storing the data in databases and presenting results to other scientists or the public (either at meetings or by writing papers). So, there is a strong need for people who have the skills and interest in looking at and thinking about data that has already been collected. I find it really exciting to try to explain what the field data are showing us and conveying the results to others. To me, the discovery of some new and possibly unexpected finding is one of the best parts of my job!


Greetings!  We've been talking about scientific research in the "polar regions", and we've had a great discussion that has centered on the Arctic.  Three of our guests have done research in that area, and we'll continue to discuss the importance of scientific research topics there: the food network, mechanisms for the absorption of carbon dioxide, fisheries, glaciers, ice sheets, and sea ice.  Let's begin to take more of a look at the other pole, as well.

As an introduction, we can test our knowledge by taking this quiz. “Spot the Difference”.  It is from the website “Discovering Antarctica”, a production of the Royal Geographical Society, the British Antarctic Survey, and other entities.  Much of the website material was developed for the 2007-2008 International Polar Year.  The website contains video clips, text, and other resources.  It does have a British focus, so not only is there information about the national curriculum, but measurements are metric…good math practice for us!  (You may need to download Flash and Quicken applications to use the activities online, or you can download both for educational purposes.)

“Spot the Difference”:

Then there is a “Wilderness Challenge”, testing our current knowledge about Antarctica.

What do you think of this information?  Are the polar regions more alike or more different from one another than you first thought?  If you used these resources with adult learners, what was their reaction to the format and to the information?

There is another way for students of all ages to "explore" Antarctica -- through the Google Street View,  From this portal, one can choose to tour the Dark Sector Laboratory at South Pole Station or the Adelie Penguin Rookery at Cape Royds, just to name a couple of options.  

I like to assign a reading about Ernest Shackleton or Robert Falcon Scott, and then ask students to "tour" their historic huts.  We then talk about the scientific observations that were made by the teams, and we compare what kinds of supplies were needed in the early 1900s to support their expeditions compared to the logistical planning and supplies for the science groups conducting research now.  

Another topic that can be discussed is the conservation of the historic huts by New Zealand's Antarctic Heritage Trust.  The Antarctic Heritage Trust cares for the historic huts and the artifacts contained within on behalf of the international community.  The conservators combine history and chemistry (among other fields) to preserve the artifacts within the huts (canned goods, clothing, photographs, scientific equipment, etc.) as well as make repairs as needed to the structures themselves.   From this website, there is a link to the blog kept by the conservators currently working in Antarctica at New Zealand's Scott Base (located just 3 km from the largest U.S. base, McMurdo Station.)

Lastly, you can take a hike through the McMurdo Dry Valleys using Google Street View.  For example, here is a link to the Marshall Valley.  The McMurdo Dry Valleys are an incredibly interesting and important region of Antarctica, and the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research (LTER) group has just celebrated 20 years as "an interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary study of the aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems in an ice-free region of Antarctica."  I encourage instructors to check out their website,, to see if you might be able to use some of their resources (blogs, books, graphs, etc.)

Lynn, what amazing technology!  Thank you for showing us this site and for suggesting other websites that can accompany the use of these resources in teaching and learning.  I like the way you integrate reading, writing, and discussion skills with these virtual tours students may take.  Has anyone on this discussion list used these resources in the adult basic skills classroom?

I've just been watching a PBS NOVA video entitled "Extreme Ice".  It contains a short video that can be viewed via PBS Learning Media:  Ice-Core Record of Climate

This program is an investigation into the changes in the Greenland Ice Sheet and the Antarctic Ice Sheet.  Lynn, you have been in Greenland with a group of students.  Have you been studying the changes in the ice sheet there?  You've also made trips to research sites (and ice sheets?) in Antarctica.  What educational materials can you suggest for us?  I would imagine there are lots of opportunities for the practice of mathematical problem solving.  Sam, Lisa, and Krista, do changes in the polar ice sheets affect your research now, or your planning for future research?


I can add to the list of educational materials already developed for Antarctica.

Several years ago, the Gulf of Maine Research Institute developed a K-12 curriculum on studying the ocean using satellites. The project was originally funded by NASA, and is still available on-line (, follow the links to 'Space Available'). One of the sections is on Antarctica, and it includes a variety of activities appropriate for polar regions. With respect to Antarctica, there is an activity which  is designed to show students how to use satellite imagery to examine temporal variability in sea ice. The section is called 'Changes in Antarctic Ice' and it includes a description of the tools used, links to sample data, and how to use computer programs or tracing paper to analyze the satellite images. Finally, it ends with a series of questions for the students to consider as they go through the activity. While this activity could be done for Antarctica or the Arctic, the sample images provided by the Gulf of Maine Aquarium are for the Antarctic.

One of the reasons I like this activity is that students can get hands-on experience with satellite images and freely-available programs to analyze any sort of digital images. The activity was originally described with a program called NIH Image, which is now updated as ImageJ. Anyone can download and use this program.

Have fun.



Hi Everyone,

While my research in the Bering Sea is not directly impacted by changes in ice sheets over land, it is highly impacted by changes in sea ice. Since sea ice often contains ice algae, when ice is present there may be an early spring food source (ice algae) for zooplankton like krill and copepods that need to begin feeding to reproduce and grow. In years when the ice (and ice algae) does not extend as far south in the Bering Sea, the zooplankton in this region may not be able to get food until phytoplankton begin to grow, which can occur a month of two later. So changes in the extent of sea ice can affect the abundance of ice algae and zooplankton, and animals that feed on zooplankton (fish, marine bird, whales, seals, etc). These processes area also important in Antarctica, where this video on krill feeding was taken:


Susan, you are correct -- the students participating in the Joint Science Education Project have investigated changes in the ice sheet in Greenland by placing an ablation stake (a long bamboo pole) and then going back in a couple of weeks to check to see the difference in the amount of the stake that was then exposed.  It was stunning to see the difference in such a short amount of time!

Here is an excerpt from a student journal:  "We measure ablation, or the melting of glacial ice, by drilling 1 meter deep holes in the ice. ... We were able to measure how much the ice melted in a week by inserting bamboo poles into the boreholes. When we returned today, we saw a landscape transformed. The entire area had decreased in height by almost half a meter."

In 2012, we witnessed the incredible melt event that saw nearly all of the Ice Sheet experiencing some melt.  The Watson River at Kangerlussuaq grew into such a torrent with melt water that it took out the bridge!  Last year, while at Summit Station, our group visited a back-lit snowpit in order to learn more about winter vs. summer snow layers, and the melt event showed clearly as a bright layer of ice.  

We also were taught the process by which snow becomes firn and then glacial ice through the layering and compression process.  This helped us to understand the importance of the ice cores from both Greenland and Antarctica.  These cores provide a record of the climate thousands of years ago because of the tiny bubbles of air trapped within them.  I hope to provide a link soon to an "Ice Core Timeline" created by Zoe Courville and drawn by Sam Carbaugh.  It is a great example of a multidisciplinary visual that connects an Ice Core to world/earth/human events.  I also hope to make available to you a "Climate Comic" on ice cores, again created by Zoe and Sam.  This might be a useful "hook" to engage some students for whom a text-dense passage about ice cores in a journal or textbook may be a bit intimidating.

I highly recommend checking out the U.S. Ice Drilling Office website, . Under the Education link (, you will find lessons, photographs (of a back-lit snowpit, and ice cores, for example), posters, etc.   For instance, one excellent activity/lesson is entitled, "Polar Detectives:  Using Ice Core Data to Decode Past Climate Mysteries".  One of my favorite new resources that this office created is the video "Polar Science and Engineering:  Drillling Back in Time" .  

Another excellent resource for learning more about ice cores is the National Ice Core Laboratory (  Go to the "About Ice Cores" section of the website to find a Video Gallery containing many excellent videos that explain the process of drilling, storing, and sampling ice cores as well as the information obtained from the cores that give scientists insight into the Earth's climate thousands of years ago.

Later in the week, I plan to share a math-based lesson/activity on another ice topic:  the decreasing extent of Arctic sea ice.



Hello, everyone,

This discussion about ice is so interesting that I've created a new discussion thread about it, "Ice Sheets, Ice Cores, and Sea Ice".  It is still at the LINCS Science group website, but at this url:

Please continue to read and post comments/questions here on this polar sciences discussion thread, but also check in to the new one.  There will be more resources and activities specific to "ice issues".


Many thanks to our guests Sam, Lynn, Lisa and Krista as they have answered our questions and have made suggestions for resources we might use.  Here is one last question as our two weeks of activity come to an end.

It obviously takes a tremendous amount of work to plan research expeditions anywhere, but especially in the polar regions.  (You can’t just go to a store to get things you have forgotten!) What do you need to do when planning for research in international waters, territorial waters, and areas of multiple national claims on land (such as Antarctica) and ocean/seas?  What treaties and covenants do you need to consider?  How are such treaties and agreements enforced? What happens if there is a disagreement among countries?  How does it work when you wish to have collaboration among scientists from many countries?

Lisa, you mentioned the NPAFC convention and the reasons why you do fishing surveys.  Could you please tell us more about that?

Lynn, could you tell us about what you’ve seen about international collaborations and treaties in your visits to research sites in Antarctica and the Arctic?

Sam and Krista, could you please give us an idea of the planning process for research expeditions at sea and the issues about territorial waters, international waters, and overlapping claims?

Hi Sue,

Great question about the planning process for research expeditions at sea, and where we can and cannot do research.

Early in the cruise planning stages we sit down with the ship's crew and look at where we want to do research, and where the borders are for each country. If you look at a map, each country appears to end when the land hits the water. However, coastal countries maintain a zone (the 'Exclusive Economic Zone') that is 200 nautical miles from shore. There is a long history of how this zone came about, but for researchers, the important point is that past the 200 nautical mile zone we can do research without needing additional permits. If we want to conduct research within the 200 nautical miles, we need permits from each country where we want to work. This can be a long and complicated process. In my most recent cruise we sailed just outside of the zone in order to avoid having to get permits from the various countries we were near. Note that we can (and did) sail through a country's Exclusive Economic Zone. However, we had to stop all scientific sampling while we were within a country's Exclusive Economic Zone.

As you can imagine, if you start drawing lines that are 200 nautical miles from any point on land, there are cases where the lines overlap and two countries are claiming the same piece of water. While this might not seem like a big deal, if there is something that is of economic value it can be important. Historically, fish, oil, and minerals have all been of sufficient economic value to raise questions about borders in the sea. In the Beaufort Sea there is a region that is claimed by both the United States and Canada. This region might have oil, and hence is of interest to both countries.

Again, great question, and one that brings up questions about both geography and economics.


Thanks, Krista, for this great explanation of the complications in planning a scientific research expedition and in thinking about the ship's track around a country's Exclusive Economic Zone. 

I agree that there are many considerations of geography and economics in these situations.  This could lead to rich discussions and investigations in the adult basic skills classroom.

Here is a question that might be a mathematical exploration:  is a nautical mile shorter or longer than a statute mile (the measure we normally use on land)?  And what is that distance in kilometers?  And why are measurements made in nautical miles?  What is the history behind it?

Have any of you instructors used these topics for math, history, geography, and/or economics?