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Polar Outreach: An Exhibition, a Film, and Google Earth.

Preview of An Arctic Tale:

The Word is Out. IPY has begun, and it’s going to be big. The first summer season of four starts in earnest this month as researchers from around the world set off to the Arctic on ships, planes, small boats, and wheels. Canada, Russia, Alaska, Svalbard, Greenland, Scandinavia… hundreds of independent researchers heading North, at the same time, is powerful, full of potential. They will not only be investigating their own specialties: archaeology, glaciology, astronomy, anthropology, politics, linguistics, atmospheric and ocean science to name a few,… but by collecting the data at the same time, around the Arctic, and being willing to share it, they massively increase our ability to look at the Really Big Picture. To probe deeper when we find out things that we don’t understand. To look at results from across a broad range of disciplines at a specific time, under the specific ice and weather conditions of 2007. So often in science we stumble across great finds, and know that our data holds great potential… if only we knew what the oceans were emitting at the time of that air measurement, or if the same phenomenon would have also been measured on the other side of the hemisphere. This is the great potential that IPY is offering us,- to take a global snapshot, or at least a polar snapshot, of the state of the planet, throughout the complete year-round cycles of eternal light and night.

The potential of IPY extends far beyond the science that will come out of it. The sharing of data, for instance, is already setting new standards for the way that scientists work together. The interdisciplinary and international collaboration of scientists is similarly changing the norm of who we work with, and which conferences we attend. I would add to this that the relationship between science and the public is also being challenged. And it’s happening in both directions. Scientists in IPY are making new commitments every day to education and public outreach by visiting schools, working with science centres, supporting students, talking to the media, taking teachers on expeditions, putting data in geo-browsers, working with artists, and more. This is matched by an increased interest, and commitment from the public, and their brokers. Journalists are thirsty to find out the real stories about the shrinking ice and snow; teachers want tips for the classroom; school and university students are independently forming networks to ask critical questions about the polar regions and the world they are inheriting; tour operators are asking how they can present IPY science to their tourists; artists, writers, and musicians are producing an increasing number of works about their concern and interest, and asking increasingly poignant questions.

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The facts are not black and white. No one person can paint the whole picture. To understand what is happening physically requires thousands of scientists to collaborate, across traditionally segregated areas of expertise. Similarly, no one person can communicate the issues. Politicians, teachers, journalists, artists, science museums, zoos, tour operators, internet gurus, parents, and students who care about the changing planet will all present slightly different stories, and each have an impact in a different arena. In IPY, we are encouraging everyone to get involved, whoever you are, whatever your background or interest. The polar regions are important areas of the planet that play a key role in maintaining the climate and culture we are accustomed to. They therefore effect each and every one of us, whether we are aware of them or not.

I have recently experienced three very different, very powerful forms of communication about the polar regions… and these are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’ of things to come.

Ice Station Antarctica has just opened at the Natural History Museum in London. Upon arrival, you are issued with an interactive ticket and initiated as an Ice Cadet. Would you be up to the challenge? After being led through a cold room, you emerge into a cloakroom full of real Antarctic clothing (that you can try on), and are guided on to smell penguin vomit, collect meteorites by [virtual] skidoo, cope with a generator failure in the living quarters, and be faced with the prospect of camping at -40 degrees (it doesn’t matter if you think in Centigrade or Fahrenheit as they’re the same at that temperature!). In every station, kids can hold real artifacts, be challenged with pertinent questions, and become involved interactively in games that can be continued after they go home. The whole experience is about living in the Antarctic, as though working for the British Antarctic Survey. After 18 months in the UK, the show will tour the world, in each place working closely with the national Antarctic operator to make the experience real.

My rating? Fantastic. Absolutely. I recommend it to anyone passing through London, big or small.The exhibition was put together by a great team, among them a previous Antarctic winterer, and you can tell. As an ex-winterer myself, entering the experience with a slight hesitation, I must admit it was incredibly authentic, factually correct and interesting, and well set out. My only disagreement was that it made living in Antarctica seem really gnarly and hard-core… where was Station Tea: “It’s been blowing a hoolie for ten days and you and your colleagues have not left the building. How many cups of tea can you drink, cakes can you eat, and bad stories can you tell before you watch another dvd?” It probably wouldn’t draw in the crowds.

National Geographic has also recently released their trailer for An Arctic Tale.. a film that follows the story of a baby polar bear and walrus as they grow up during seven years in the Arctic. The film will be released later this year and will likely draw audiences similar to those who enjoyed March of the Penguins. I am extremely fortunate to have seen a preview of the film. It’s amazing, no really. The footage is stunning, the stories captivating, and the harsh realities of Arctic survival not shied away from. In addition to incredible video of polar bears and walruses, both above and below the ocean surface, we are also privileged to see Narwhals, birds, Orcas, whales, seals, and foxes interacting in the wild Arctic. The film was compiled from over ten years worth of footage, and incredible attention to detail by the directors. It also presents a very honest account of the effect that melting sea ice in the Arctic is having on the natural world. It’s brave, refreshing, and delightful.

This opportunity arose after being approached by National Geographic to see if there were ways that we could collaborate surrounding the release of an Arctic Tale. The film shows melting ice, the struggles of nature, the challenges of survival, using a very powerful medium… but we all know that film can lie, and that images can be chosen to portray a specific angle. By working with IPY scientists, we have the opportunity to not only engage audiences, but also to open an informed dialogue with them about the current knowledge and understanding of the changing Arctic. Here is an opportunity to learn about polar animals in a captivating film, and then, a few days later when there are still questions on your mind, be able to ask the experts directly. And what’s more, by working with scientists from around the word (there are scientists from 63 countries involved in IPY), audiences can ask the questions in their own language, in their own time-zone, in their home towns.

A third example of IPY Outreach was at the International Symposium on Digital Earth (ISDE) in Berkeley, California. The great and the good of the digital world were present, and IPY was high on the agenda. I was surrounded by people who speak a language I don’t understand, in English, about worlds that I have never visited. But though I still struggle with RSS feeds and web news, millions of internet junkies out there don’t. The internet has opened up the opportunity for research, from your home, in depth, of issues that you care about. No more do we have to listen to documentaries or read papers to learn about issues that other people are interested in… and no more do we need to be guided by their storyline. Tools like Google Earth and Second Life mean that we can be the explorers, the adventurers, the scientists, and we can go where we want to. The challenge for those of us holding information that we think you might be interested in, is knowing where, and how, to place it so you can find it, if you want to.

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The ISDE conference was full of ideas, of potential, of tools. But what should we do with them? What good is Google Earth without interesting layers to visit? When empty, it is just a fancy atlas. But when full, it holds stories in every ocean, on every mountain, inside every building. Just like the real world. What we’re trying to do is bring these stories out, make hem accessible. This week we will be introducing a new aspect of IPY in Google Earth: the IPY Blogs (including this one) that can now be found geospatially, according to where they were written or the location they describe. In this way, you’ll be able to follow a story, in real time, as it unfolds. Follow a ship on its way through the Arctic ice, follow a scientist drilling cores in Greenland, follow a glaciologist as she climbs glaciers to record new data. And in many cases, you will be able to see the data as well.

In all three cases discussed above, scientists and communicators worked together closely to present a story. A captivating, accurate, story.  It makes sense. We need to work together, to use each other’s strengths, to reach the general public, to explain why the polar regions are of relevance to our day to day lives, and why we should care. We need both the tools to intrigue and interest, and the scientific knowledge to provide answers once the questions have been catalysed. IPY raises many interesting and difficult questions, we don’t have the answers, but we want to open a dialogue to share what we do know, and hear what you are concerned about.

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If you do use the Google Earth or map tool to follow this blog, you’ll see that I am now writing from Perth, Australia at a conference for international science teachers, WORLDSTE. We have an IPY booth here, hosted together with the Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Co-operative Research Centre (ACE CRC), the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the Institute for Antarctic and Southern Ocean Studies (IASOS). Next door, the Australian Science Teachers Association is giving out material for Science Week which this year is focusing on Antarctica. Teachers from Australia, Nigeria, Serbia, Scotland, Cyprus, Fiji, New Zealand, and the US (to name a few) are excited about this great opportunity to teach science wrapped in a new approach: focusing on the polar regions, interdisciplinarity, and connecting to real scientists in the field. Not to mention new resources: all the material we brought almost completely disappeared in the first hour the IPY booth was open! To find out more about material and opportunities for teachers, please visit our Education pages.

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