Blog dedicated primarily to randomly selected news items; comments reflecting personal perceptions

Monday, December 14, 2015

Cocktails at Antarctica

"[Researchers have] only got so much money. There are only so many ships, there's only so much time in the academic year. We're up there four times a summer, and these researchers might get to go once. We saw an opportunity to fill that gap in, to do research where it's not being done already."
"This project is important because it is a test of amateurs being able to collect good data."
"We had a huge amount to learn, but ... we were able to settle into producing accurate and consistent data, which we then felt confident uploading for use."
Alex Cowan, geologist, contracted expedition staff
Citizen Science at the North Pole -- August 1, 2015 -- Photos by Lauren Farmer
"Glaciers we used to take people to are now gone. They're not only no longer in the water, they're so far back on the land that we can't reasonably hike to the foot of them."
"We do have an impact when we go there [Arctic]. It's well managed and our impact is small, but ... I think there's a real responsibility to do more than go there and take."
"For a first-time visitor, it's an incredibly powerful experience, but it doesn't really penetrate sometimes. I firmly believe that getting involved in the science means staying out longer, getting a little colder, getting out of your comfort zone, but ultimately you get a more vivid experience."
"You don't go to Antarctica for the cocktails, you know?"
Ted Cheeseman, ecological tour operator
Polar travel adventures as tourists now have a new twist to them. Typically, such expeditions have on board scientists, biologists, geologists, who contract with a travel companies to such ecologically exotic places to explain to tourists the landscapes they are observing and the ecology and the wildlife they happen to come across. When, for example, university is out for the summer months, professors of biology, or botany sometimes find it personally useful to sign on to expeditions as contracted specialists, available to give lectures and to act as guides for tourists travelling to the Arctic.

Whale-watching expeditions, for example, then offer the expertise of contracted marine biologists who will explain to those interested in delving deeper into the biology and habits of whales, just what is involved, bring the experience alive and educating tourists at the same time; entertainment and information in one fell swoop of the intersection of travel and academia. The duo of geologist Alex Cowan and photographer Lauren Farmer, working as contracted expedition staff last year discussed that intersection.

Travellers on an Northern expedition are conscripted to gather data to be used research for climate scientists.
Lauren Farmer   Travellers on an Northern expedition are conscripted to gather data to be used research for climate scientists

And from that discussion arose the concept of citizen-science. Ordinary people already sign on to giving additional assistance to government bodies, for example, in reporting certain weather events enabling forecasters to get a more wide-ranging idea of what's happening with the atmosphere. Enthusiastic birders tallying their ongoing sightings, help ornithologists and other agencies to get a clearer picture of migration and other issues of interest to science. The idea that Cowan and Farmer hatched was the involvement of ordinary people, as tourists on cruise ships to ecologically sensitive locations.

After recruitment of those interested in volunteering their time, a small circle of citizen scientists emerge, who are exposed to some training to enable them to understand what is required. Four round trips between Murmansk, Russia and the North Pole with Poseidon Expeditions enabled Cowan and Farmer to test their initiative with what they ultimately named the Sea Ice Research Team. All the volunteers were trained to measure the temperature and salinity of melt ponds in the Arctic Ocean, to aid scientists in producing accurate models of the speed of sea ice melt.

The work has been recognized as potentially valuable to ecologists. It is being used by the Arctic Research Consortium of the United States Sea Ice Prediction Network. The growing popularity of Arctic tourism in the cruise industry, with increasing numbers of tourists on passenger vessels travelling across Nunavut is a recognized trend that researchers are now exploring for its potential to bring them much-needed data. As with the Arctic, so too with the Antarctic. There, tourists are to track whale movement through documentation assembled in photographs. Researchers then record whale sounds applying multi-sensor tags, tracking the animals' underwater movements.

The travel industry years ago initiated a new type of travel; tourism abroad where people could volunteer to work on projects in underdeveloped countries. It gave people a sense of purpose to their tourism travels. This new line of tourist-involvement in gathering data useful to scientists is yet another way to allow tourists the opportunity to feel that they are being productive even while they are indulging their penchant for travel and sight-seeing. It is a more in-depth commitment, but one that promises to result in personal satisfaction of having been of use to science.

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