Blog: A long-term scientific programme for the Polar Academy


by Dr Jerome Maynaud, Science Officer

In 2023, the Polar Academy committed to running several scientific experiments during two expeditions (one in winter and one in summer), to establish Science, Technology and Mathematics (STEM) techniques at the heart of future expeditions. Dr Jerome Mayaud, the Academy’s Science Officer, collaborated closely with academics at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, the Geological Society of Denmark (GEUS), the University of Aarhus and the 5Gyres Marine Institute to develop simple, repeatable and scalable experiments that have the potential to be run for many years to come. 

We explain our reasoning, methodology, and long-term plans for our main experiments:

  • Snow density measurements
  • Environmental DNA monitoring
  • LiDAR imagery of biota and rocks
  • Microplastic pollution tracking

Snow density measurements

Many of us are aware that polar regions are warming disproportionately fast, which in turn is impacting a whole host of natural processes, including glacial melt and ice sheet movement. Remote sensing data (gathered from satellites) are often used to inform global and regional climate models, which allow us to understand past ice sheet change and project changes into the future. However, we sometimes forget that these climate models often require ground-truth data, collected on the ice sheet itself, to be accurate.

In March 2023, the Polar Academy set out to contribute to a global, open-source database of snow density measurements hosted by the Geological Survey of Denmark (GEUS). Data quality is good in commonly visited parts of Greenland, such as west Greenland, but the more remote east side of the ice sheet has a dearth of high-quality snow density measurements. We therefore made use of our expedition itinerary in east Greenland to pilot a strategy for collecting much-needed snow density data at a couple of sites and at multiple depths.

We aimed to keep the kit list simple: working with experts at GEUS and at the Scott Polar Research Institute (University of Cambridge) to design a dependable yet lightweight instrumentation to reliably calculate snow density at our sites. This consisted simply of a tin can of known volume and a set of scales! The results from this are already promising, despite an icy layer that developed in the snowpack following uncommon rains in February 2023. We plan to further refine the method and set up sites in summer 2023 that participants in future expeditions will revisit to provide a long-term record of in-situ snow density changes. What’s more, we are working with researchers at the University of Aarhus to set up cheap and robust temperature sensors that can be left for several months in the field without additional power, which will help supplement our snow density measurements.

We have already agreed with GEUS to provide them with all the data and metadata necessary to meet quality standards for their online database. This means the Polar Academy attendees will be directly contributing to the improvement of global climate modelling of polar regions!

Environmental DNA monitoring

Environmental DNA (eDNA) is a rapidly evolving technique that enables researchers to rapidly collect and sequence the DNA that is inherently shed by all species as they move through nature. Given increasing worries globally about the deterioration of natural systems and their constituent fauna and flora, it is vitally important to collect high-resolution information about the distribution of species, and how this is changing with land use and climatic changes. 

The Polar Academy has partnered with Nature Metrics, an innovative UK-based biotechnology startup that has developed rapid eDNA testing and sequencing kits, to sample different sites across east Greenland. In March 2023, the Polar Academy expedition sampled water bodies at three different sites (mainly frozen lakes) to ascertain which species had recently been in the vicinity. To our knowledge, this is the first example of eDNA sampling in the remote region around Tasiilaq. This pilot sampling campaign revealed some methodological challenges (not least the bitter cold and difficulties in accessing water through thick ice!), which have helped us to hugely improve our approach for subsequent trips.

Since the Polar Academy team visits eastern Greenland at least twice a year, we have an unparalleled opportunity to set up a long-term longitudinal study, tracking how species diversity changes over annual and decadal timescales. We have also agreed to share our data with Nature Metrics, who are building a ‘eBioAtlas’ that maps the decline (and occasional success stories) of biodiversity change in remote regions. A wide variety of interested parties, from academic institutions, non-profit organizations and business, stand to benefit from this eBioAtlas, and this collaboration provides the Polar Academy students with a unique way to contribute to, and ultimately influence, nature recovery efforts globally.

LiDAR imagery of biota and rocks

As phones and tablets have become ever more powerful, their constituent hardware and software have become veritable ‘labs in your pocket’ – ways to measure and record the environment using the simple handheld devices we carry around with us every day.

This way of looking at ‘handheld computers’ was pioneered by an expert in self-led environmental and social research, Dr Katrin Wilhelm, from the School of Geography and the Environment at the University of Oxford. Dr Wilhelm worked together with the Polar Academy’s 2022–23 cohort to co-design a series of experiments that made use of the laser hardware that come as standard on iPhones and iPads. The lasers allowed the students to generate LiDAR-style 3D models of everything from lichens and pebbles to mapping large-scale snow caves and ice formations.

A dozen students on the March 2023 expedition devised their very own individual projects to explore the landscapes around them. Upon their return, they converted their LiDAR data into high-resolution models that are being stored in a digital repository; much like a seed bank, this ‘LiDAR bank’ will ensure that we do not lose vital information about the huge diversity of biota and rocks that thrive in the Arctic. 

Microplastic pollution tracking

Microplastic pollution is a growing area of interest, with traces of microplastics being detected as far afield as Antarctica and the polar oceans. In collaboration with renowned marine scientists and explorers Dr Marcus Eriksen and Dr Lisa Erdle from the 5Gyres Institute, we have developed a field sampling strategy for airborne microplastics across east Greenland.

Deploying simple, cheap petri dishes lined with sticky tape along a variety of transects (including within the town of Tasiilaq, across lakes, and along remote mountain ranges), we hope to track the deposition of microplastics from the air in these remote places. Once again, the long-term monitoring potential of this research programme is obvious, given the twice-yearly expeditions we run in similar locations. Our collaboration with Dr Eriksen and Dr Erdle will extend to publishing our data to an open-source microplastics database, and – hopefully! – the publication of our findings in peer-reviewed academic publications.

Communicating the Polar Academy science

When we collect data in the field and analyse it, only half of the job is done; it’s useless unless it is shared more widely with the world.

As previously mentioned, we are proactively setting up agreements with our academic and commercial partners for making most of our data accessible to everyone around the world, using online databases. On a smaller but more human scale, we have also started spreading the word about our science at in-person lectures and informational sessions.

In June 2023, five students from the 2022–23 cohort travelled from their homes in Scotland to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, for several days of guest lectures. The students presented their data, as well as reflections on methodological limitations and suggestions for improving data quality in future, to academic groups at both universities. This proved to be a very fruitful exchange of ideas and techniques, with many of the spectators wowed by the incredible scientific work the students had already carried out. It was a true testament to the power of blending adventure with STEM!