Park Science Students Get Northern Exposure

August 31, 2009|By Sarah Fisher | Sarah Fisher,

Most school trips do not require that an adult guide be armed with a shotgun at all times in case of a polar bear attack. But the trip that nine Park School students took this summer was not your average school excursion.

The students from the private school in Brooklandville and their science teacher, Julie Rogers, traveled to Churchill in Canada's Manitoba province, for scientific field research about permafrost levels and to collect frozen fish and caribou meat from the local people for further toxicology analysis.

Ranging from sophomores to seniors, the students will present their findings at two scientific conferences in the next year. They are already sharing their samples and data with the federal Environmental Protection Agency and the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

"We are the first to gather this data," said Rogers. The remote location, she said, makes it difficult to collect.

Churchill is a small town on the coast of the Hudson Bay in Canada's subarctic region. To reach it, Rogers and her students had to take two planes, a 10-hour bus ride and a 52-hour train ride. Somewhere along the way, their bags got lost and the group had to buy toothbrushes in Winnipeg.

"I wore the same clothes for four days," said Lyn Meyerhoff, who will be a college freshman this fall. "We were all laughing. ... It's part of the fun, part of the experience."

The 12-day trip was set up through Global Explorers, a nonprofit organization that sends students to places such as Peru, Mexico, Tanzania and Canada. The Park School students were able to pay for more than half their trip through fundraising efforts.

They shared lodgings with more than 90 scientists while staying at the Churchill Northern Studies Center.

Any time the students were outdoors, they had to be accompanied by a polar bear guide. Churchill is sometimes referred to as the polar bear capital of the world, according to the city's Web site, so the guide was armed with noisemakers and a shotgun as protection from the bears.

"The guy we had said he never had to hurt a polar bear," said Lauren Leffer, a sophomore who went on the trip.

The group saw polar bears almost every day. Jonathan Gorman, a sophomore, estimates that he saw five or six bears in all.

During the day, the group collected data in the Canadian tundra by sticking long metal probes into the ground to measure the depth of the permafrost, the ground that remains frozen all year round. The work began early in the morning and lasted until about 5 p.m.

"We had to learn what we were doing very quickly," said Josh Naiman, a senior and a two-time veteran of the trip. "It's strenuous work, and you have to do it correctly."

The data will help them determine whether the permafrost is getting thinner because of global warming. Churchill relies on the permafrost to keep the trains running.

"As the permafrost melts, the land shifts," said Rogers. "Trains can't get to Churchill if it melts."

"The kids had a real 'carpe diem' mentality," she said. "We collected data all day, and at night we would go into town and interview people about their eating habits." The students will use those surveys to determine if the residents are at risk of eating contaminated fish.

They hope to publish their findings and conclusions in a scientific journal, Rogers said.

The young scientists, however, could not reach a conclusion as to what their favorite part of the trip was, be it boating with Beluga whales, seeing the northern lights or riding together in a large van during the evening to explore the area, trips they called "sunset safaris."

Naiman remembers the last night of the trip, when the northern lights seemed especially bright.

"We ran outside and just stared up at the sky for 20 minutes," he said. "Words sort of escape me."

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