Climate change gets personal

Trip to Antarctica changes students’ perspective

Set against a dramatic Antarctic background, the Russian vessel M/V Lyubov Orlova waits as passengers set out in Zodiaks to explore the area. Among the passengers were OSU professor Michael Harte and 15 students who were studying climate change in the region.

Set against a dramatic Antarctic background, the Russian vessel M/V Lyubov Orlova waits as passengers set out in Zodiaks to explore the area. Among the passengers were OSU professor Michael Harte and 15 students who were studying climate change in the region.

Forget Cancun or Miami. Last winter break, a group of Oregon State University students didn’t seek out the sun and sand. Instead, they enthusiastically set off for the coldest place on earth.
Professor Michael Harte, director of the OSU Marine Resource Management Program, led a group of 15 students, 10 of them from OSU, on an exploratory trip to Antarctica in December to examine how human actions around the world can alter the fragile ecosystems in the frigid south.
Harte and his students viewed the trip as an opportunity to turn a vacation into a learning lab, as they reflected on their own carbon footprint while at the same time witnessing the dramatic effects of climate change on the landscape and the flora and fauna of the Antarctic.
“What we do here in Oregon does make a difference (in other parts of the world,)” Harte said.
Students who enrolled for the trip first took an intensive on-line series of lectures to prepare themselves for the journey. Then, in mid December, the group flew to Argentina, where Ushuaia, at the tip of South America, became their home base.
The town serves as a launching point for countless ships taking passengers to Antarctica. Among those ships was a Russian vessel, the M/V Lyubov Orlova, whose passengers included Harte’s class as well as a variety of tourists.icegroup2
The ship took passengers across Drake Passage, a two day trip that was remarkably calm, despite the waters being known for their turbulence. Sea sickness wasn’t a problem for Harte’s students, he said, but the medication they were taking to stave off sickness did alter some students for the worse, making clear thinking sometimes a little difficult.

Michael Harte often encountered friendly penguins.

Michael Harte often encountered friendly penguins.

For Harte, providing a balance between learning and having fun proved the biggest challenge. Although he’s traveled with graduate students before, he’s never led a study abroad group, so the social dynamics provided the biggest learning opportunity for him as professor.
“It was like ‘Animal Planet’ meets ‘Big Brother,’” he said. “The unique wildlife experience and the dynamics of other young people made it a lot of fun.”
While there was plenty of opportunity to observe the wildlife and scenery aboard ship, the most rewarding explorations came during trips ashore in Zodiaks, small boats that transported passengers to remote locations along the way.
There, the students and Harte were able to interact with Antarctica’s wildlife in a profound way. Although humans are told not to approach the animals, no such restrictions were placed on the animals themselves. That means bold penguins felt free to march right up to their visitors.
“I had a chummy penguin step up and sit on my stomach,” Harte said.
Students were able to witness thriving Gentoo penguin groups who had started taking over territory of Adelie penguins who were being driven further south by warming temperatures and melting ice. They also witnessed the influence of invasive species, and were aware that even though they were careful to clean off their boots, there was a chance that they were contributing to the spread of new and potentially unwelcome species.
mamapenguin2“One of the scariest things to me about the human impacts to Antarctica, and really worldwide, is how many vectors there are for invasive species,” wrote Brandon Trelstad, a graduate student and OSU’s Sustainability Coordinator, in a piece he composed after returning from the trip.
One of the things students were asked to consider is whether or not what they learned outweighs the damage they did to the environment simply by visiting, including the carbon emissions by the planes and ships that transported them.
“Does it change people’s world view? Yes, but there is a cost,” Harte said.
Harte is planning another trip for the coming winter break. He needs students to enroll early in order to book passage aboard ship.
More information is available at: by typing “Antarctica” in the search engine. Or call Kristy Spikes at 541-737-3006.
~ Theresa Hogue

8 Responses to “Climate change gets personal”

  1. Elisa Krueger says:

    I had so much fun! One of the most amazing experiences of my life!!

  2. Bill Banash says:

    I am curious as to hear some interpretations of global warming and the natural process of the Earth. For instance, we once had an ice age yet all that ice retreated and melted away, mankind had nothing to do with that warming process so can we really be ALL to blame or are we just a fraction of fault?

  3. Cody Skinwalker Mitchell-Chavez says:

    Human activity so far accounts for 0.28% of the theoretical greenhouse effect. 0.117% is CO2. Greenhouse gasses are vaporous mater in the atmosphere that hold retain a significant amount of heat. Water is the champion. Not only does it have a high specific heat, it also is very, very massive when looking at the atmospheric make-up on earth.

    These students are correct in the assumption the earth is warming, but to worry about their “carbon footprint” is insignificant. You’re talking about 0.00117 of every one degree is man-generated.

  4. Eric says:

    Wow, way to quote a 6 year old website. CO2 and man made pollution is definitely driving global warming. That website is outdated in its claims. Also, the sources it sites are highly irrelevant. Here’s some more relevant information and sources:

  5. Bill Banash, College of Business says:

    Eric – While I enjoyed reading those current websites you posted, I read nothing of how much we are really to blame with regards to previous ice ages. While we obviously contribute to the fact, I was looking for evidence of contribution not the speed of the process. I think this makes for a good educated debate!

  6. Amanda Johnston COS says:

    This was an opportunity unmatched by anything offered in a classroom to experience and understand the extents of human impacts on the entire biosphere, from depleted fisheries to climate change and pollution.

  7. Rachael Mueller, COAS says:

    There are a couple of great, local resources for those of you who are interested in climate change (human-induced or otherwise).

    The Geoscience department is hosting a climate change seminar series with an A-star list of scientists. The next speaker will discuss Sea Level Rise contributions from Antarctica and Greenland, this Friday at 4pm (1109 Cordley). More information at:

    Bev Law (Forestry) is also offering a reading and conference on the topic to openly discuss the literature and scientific evidence. These meetings are every Thursday 3–3:50 pm, Peavy 224, and are open to everyone (regardless of enrollment). Contact Bev for this week’s reading topic (

    In regard to a couple of the postings listed here, these websites may be of interest.

    We are lucky to be on a campus with so many experts and resources. Since the internet is fickle friend (both easy to learn from and misleading), I highly encourage those with inquiry to utilize our local resources in order to prevent being misled by fallacy arguments.

    Best of luck on your enquiries!

  8. Andreas Schmittner, College of Oceanic & Atmospheric Sciences says:

    Bill: Man is not to blame for the ice age cycles. Those happen on
    a time scale of 100,000 years and are caused by cyclic variations
    of the Earth’s orbit around the sun (Milankovic theory). We think
    that the global average surface air temperature was about 3-5 K
    (8 degrees F) colder during the hight of the last ice age 20,000 years ago, a time when huge 2 mile thick ice sheets covered all of
    Canada. This shows us that a relatively small (3-5 K) change in
    global average temperature can have a big effect on regional climate.

    Cody is right that man’s activities have contributed only a small fraction (1 K or 0.25%) to the natural greenhouse effect. The effect
    of all water vapor and CO2 in the atmosphere is to warm the surface
    by about 40 K (~70 degrees F). But if we continue to emit CO2 into
    the atmosphere climate could warm by 2-5 K, which is a similar
    change than that from the last ice age to today. Thus we can expect
    quite dramatic changes in regional climate (in particular the polar
    regions but also others).