Polar Scientists Study Life at the Ends of the Earth
Would you go to the ends of the earth for a rewarding career? If so,
you might find some cool opportunities in polar science.
What exactly is polar science? Earl Blacklock is the communications advisor
for an environmental organization. He says that polar science refers to physical
and social science conducted in the Arctic and Antarctica.
Polar scientists study many different things. One of the big areas is
environmental science. Environmental scientists might research topics such
as the effect of climate changes on permafrost. Others might study the effects
of mining on caribou populations.
Although environmental research plays a big role in polar projects, it
is only one part of a broad range of scientific studies. Sociologists in the
North research topics like modern society's impact on traditional lifestyles.
Psychologists might look at the effects of isolation and darkness on people.
Linguists study the culture and language of the native peoples.
"Virtually any type of science has an Arctic application," Blacklock says.
Polar scientists include oceanographers, biologists, climatologists, meteorologists,
geologists, zoologists, environmental assessment researchers, contaminants
specialists, hydrologists, hydrometric technologists, engineers, aquatics
researchers, sociologists, psychologists and linguists.
In the Arctic, polar research sometimes includes an area known as the sub-Arctic.
This region is different because trees grow in the sub-Arctic.
"The Arctic in particular does not have strict geographic boundaries. It's
not as neat as you might think," says Mark Serreze. He is a senior research
scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center at the University of
Colorado. He has conducted many research projects in the Arctic.
Polar research is somewhat different in the Antarctic. No one lives there.
There are no towns or villages. Scientists work at research stations operated
by various countries.
Most researchers stay on the continent during the summer months of November
to April. They leave during the harsh winter months. Only a handful of scientists
and support people remain throughout the winter.
Scientific projects in Antarctica involve activities like monitoring the
penguin population, studying the effects of research stations on marine life,
researching climate change and conducting geological studies.
Kathy Conlan is a marine biologist working for a nature museum. She has
done research in the Antarctic. Conlan is Canadian, but Canada does not maintain
a station in the Antarctic. She did her work at the U.S.'s McMurdo Station.
Conlan explains that many polar research projects involve scientists from
several branches of science and from many different countries. There is an
emphasis on countries working together.
"Anyone can work at another country's station so long as they get funded,"
she explains. "It's up to the country's granting organization to decide who
and what they will fund."
This year, Conlan plans to join a research cruise with a team that is studying
methane gas vents in the Weddell Sea. "Opportunities are terrific right now,"
There are good reasons why countries are interested in the world's polar
regions. Serreze says that much of the interest stems from concerns about
global warming and climate changes.
Until recently, many scientists thought that the climate changes occurred
naturally. Now many scientists say the current patterns of change are too
large for natural variations.
"Something else is at work," Serreze says. "We thought that the Arctic
and the Antarctic would respond first to global warming, and that is what
we are seeing now."
Blacklock agrees. "The polar regions are increasingly being recognized
as the canary in the [coal]mine for planet earth." Early coal miners used
to send a canary into a mine to see if there were poisonous gases. If the
canary died, the miners left the area.
Scientists say global warming could affect everything on earth, including
weather, climate, vegetation, wildlife and human life. There is a huge amount
of ice in the two polar regions. If that ice melts, it could raise sea levels.
It will also probably affect the earth's climates because the poles supply
the cold air that modifies air temperatures.
"It will take a lot of research to understand and hopefully mitigate some
of these changes," Serreze says.
The melting polar ice might affect us in other ways as well. When the Arctic
ice melts, it will open up the Northwest Passage shipping route. Instead of
going through the South American Panama Canal, ships from Asia could take
a quicker route across the Arctic, then down to New York.
As the Arctic becomes more open to shipping, it will create political and
national defense issues. Therefore, we will also need policy developers and
people to work on the geopolitical side of things.
"All of these things are attracting a lot of political interest and a lot
of public interest," says Martin Fortier. He's the executive director of ArcticNet.
One of ArcticNet's goals is to train the next generation of scientists.
Fortier says that polar research projects are much bigger now than when
he was a grad student. Most projects then had only two to three people. Small
projects are still taking place, but most of today's projects typically involve
For example, ArcticNet operates the CCGS Amundsen, an icebreaker ship used
for Arctic research. The Amundsen carries 43 scientists working in various
areas such as the atmosphere, sea ice, viruses and whales.
Anyone interested in polar research should have an interest in mathematics,
science and computers, says Serreze. "It's a technological world, and it will
become an even more technological world," he says.
Fortier adds that you will need at least a bachelor's degree if you're
interested in polar science. He says that you must also be passionate about
the work. Try to find out what really interests you, he advises. You will
be researching in a very limited field, so you must have something that excites
Fortier also says that grades are important, both in high school and college.
Good grades in high school can lead to scholarships. Professors tend to select
scholarship students to participate in field studies and to help them with
But if you don't get a scholarship, there is no need to be discouraged.
"I have seen students without scholarships who became great researchers,"
Amazing stories of science on ice
ArcticNet operates a program called Schools on Board
Back to Career Cluster
Real-life adventures of research scientists in the Antarctica