Friday, December 26, 2014

Day 9 - It's Snowing!

Hard to believe but the continent of Antarctica is actually classified as a desert.  Although it is home to the world’s largest fresh water reservoir--trapped inside glaciers and icebergs--Antarctica gets very little actual precipitation.  Today, for the first time, however, it actually snowed at our landing in Dorian Bay--and not just any little light snow, either, we had fluffy, wet snowflakes…perfect for building snowmen!

Dorian Bay used to serve as a British and Argentine outposts complete with a runway area for aircraft, but it has been long-abandoned as the area no longer serves as a refuge for explorers.  We toured a small cabin that was refurbished to illustrate what life was like for researchers who lived here.  Close quarters for a small group of people!

Hiking up to the Gentoo penguin colonies in this area was more difficult than the other sites due to the fresh snow.  In our attempt to create “People Highways,” many of us found ourselves stuck knee-deep in the powder (a situation called “post-holeing”).  We were instructed to cover our post-holes as much as possible so that the penguins did not get stuck in them and so we could leave the continent as pristine as we could for other visitors.

As if watching people struggle through snow isn’t entertaining enough, have you ever seen a penguin trying to walk up a hill in fresh snow?  It’s actually kind of comical…and for those of us penguin-lovers, it kind of makes you feel bad for the little guys.  Their legs are so short that they waddle as well as they can with their flippers stretched out and held back, occasionally tumbling beak-first into the snow.  Undaunted, they pick themselves up, shake off the snow, and continue on their journey.  When they get really tired, they plop down on their bellies and either scuttle across the snow using their wings as flippers, or they just lie there waiting for another burst of energy. 

After observing the little Gentoos for a good hour as the snow came blowing in sideways, thick and white,  we returned to the ship and attended a presentation about Ernest Shackleton and his adventures here in Antarctica.  The bravery of our early explorers is respectable, and I am interested in studying him even more now that I have been here myself.  Our expedition vessel is equipped with all the amenities—including INTERNET!  With minimal equipment, he and his people pioneered explorations of this great continent.

Speaking of the continent, I forgot to mention that earlier today we finally walked on the continental mainland at our landing in Neko Harbour!  Up to this point, we had only toured the waterways and hiked on various islands, and so this was it! 

On this landing in Neko  Harbour, one of our naturalists did some maintenance on a camera that he and some other naturalists have placed there as part of a project in which they are surveying a glacier in the harbour.  The camera is fixed to take pictures of the same glacier every hour of every day and has been running since January of this year.  He put the images into a time-lapse video and we were able to see how the glacier flows and changes throughout the season.  Similar to how lava flows from a volcano, this glacier, ever so slowly, had snow crumble and avalanche, extending one side into the water of the Harbour during the winter months and retreating back during the summer months as snow melted, calved off of the glacier, and dropped into the ocean to become icebergs.

The way that water cycles and flows here is a phenomenon that I would like to study further.  Having learned about glaciers from books in elementary school, I have a rudimentary understanding of them.  Without the context, without actually seeing them, hearing them rumble and calve off (sounds like thunder), and without being able to analyze the layers first-hand or look at the beautiful colors and crevasses in these immense sheets of snow and ice, I had nothing to pique my interest in the topic.  In many ways, I’m sure my students feel the same way.

A major component of this professional development that I will take back to my classroom is the first-hand experience of having been introduced to glaciology (and several other areas) by people who are passionate experts about the topic.  Because of their enthusiasm and knowledge, I now feel prepared to dig deeper into this area of study.  I especially think that not having a strong background in environmental sciences helped me approach this study from a naïve perspective, which led me to ask the basic questions students might ask.  I was truly a student of the teachers on this expedition.

It seems simple, but this experience has caused me to consider the most important aspects of teaching and learning. 

I was able to learn from this opportunity because I know HOW to learn.  I know how to ask questions and wonder about the world around me.  Because I am curious and because I have the ability to make connections from this “foreign” topic to "familiar" topics (eg. connections between science and social studies or math and the arts—think back to the “scaling” conversation from yesterday’s blog), I am able to process and synthesize all of this information.  This reinforces the belief that teaching largely involves helping students learn how to learn and inspiring them to become lifelong learners so that they can continue on their journeys seeking information on their own. 

My skills in language arts are also helping me retain all of this information as I maintain this blog—partly to inform readers, partly to remind myself, and mostly to model for my students the power of journaling.  When I return to my classroom, this blog will become a text that students will use as a model for writing about learning and for writing about experience.

Let’s be honest.  This blog is also my way of writing for pleasure as well.   Being able to put creative spins or touches on the serious topics we are investigating is the highlight of my day. 

Thank you for providing an audience for whom I can write.  Knowing that you are reading this motivates me to keep going and to write clearly and concisely—to translate this intense experience into words that convey important ideas and bring you along on this journey.

Tomorrow marks our final landing here in Antarctica.  I am looking forward to one more opportunity to take you with me on this adventure before we return to the open waters of the Drake Passage.


Weddell seal and Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbour
Photo by: Nina Page

Weddell seal and Gentoo penguins at Neko Harbour

Gentoo penguin and Skua at Dorian Bay

Kicking back snow at Dorian Bay

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