Trip to Antarctica changes students’ perspective
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.
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.
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.
“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: http://oregonstate.edu/international/ by typing “Antarctica” in the search engine. Or call Kristy Spikes at 541-737-3006.
~ Theresa Hogue