Polar Academy Students Present Arctic Research in Oxford and Cambridge


By Dr Jerome Maynaud, Science Officer

In June 2024, six Polar Academy students traveled to the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge to present the results of their winter scientific experiments. This exciting trip highlights the Academy’s innovative STEM program, developed with international research partners.

Our Scientific Experiments

Snow Density Measurements

Many are aware that polar regions are warming disproportionately fast, impacting natural processes like glacial melt and ice sheet movement. While remote sensing data from satellites inform climate models, these models need ground-truth data from the ice sheet to be accurate. Collaborating with the Geological Survey of Denmark (GEUS) and the Scott Polar Research Institute at Cambridge, students used simple tools—a tin can and scales—to measure snow density at multiple depths in east Greenland. Despite challenges, such as an icy layer following uncommon February and March rains, the results were promising. The collected data will be added to a global, open-source database, improving climate models.

LiDAR Imagery of Biota and Rocks

Phones and tablets have become powerful tools for environmental measurement. Led by Dr. Katrin Wilhelm from Oxford, students used iPhones and iPads as part of the Lab-In-Your-Pocket project (‘From Toy To Tool’) to generate LiDAR-style 3D models of Arctic biota and landscapes. These handheld devices allowed them to map everything from lichens and pebbles to large-scale snow caves and ice formations. Upon returning, students converted their data into high-resolution models stored in a digital ‘LiDAR bank,’ preserving vital information about Arctic biodiversity for future research.

Microplastic Pollution Tracking

Microplastic pollution, detected even in Antarctica, is a growing concern. Partnering with marine scientists from the 5Gyres Institute, the Polar Academy developed a strategy to track airborne microplastics across east Greenland. Using simple petri dishes lined with sticky tape, students collected samples along transects in Tasiilaq, lakes, and remote mountain ranges. This long-term monitoring program, facilitated by the Academy’s twice-yearly expeditions, will contribute data to an open-source microplastics database, enhancing our understanding of pollution in remote areas.

Sea Ice Salinity

Sea ice salinity provides insights into climate patterns and sea currents, which have global implications. In 2024, the Academy partnered with Dr. Tom Cowton from the University of St Andrews to sample sea ice salinity during the expedition. Using drills and salinity measurement tools, students measured salinity at various depths in Tasiilaq Bay. This data will form the basis for a long-term study into salinity changes, helping to understand the broader impacts of climate change.

Student Voices in Science

During their long, challenging expedition, students kept diaries and used emotion wheels to document their experiences. They also used diagrams to track their connection to nature throughout their journey across the Greenland ice. This qualitative data is being used by psychology researchers to understand the long-term impacts of these expeditions on student mental well-being. The findings will help improve the design of future trips, ensuring they are both scientifically valuable and personally enriching for participants.

Communicating Our Findings to Oxbridge Scientists

Collecting and analyzing data is only half the job; sharing it widely is crucial. The Polar Academy proactively sets up agreements with academic and commercial partners to make most of their data accessible globally through online databases. On a more personal scale, the Academy also spreads the word about their science through in-person lectures and informational sessions.

In June 2024, six students from the latest Polar Academy cohort traveled from their homes in Scotland to Oxford and Cambridge, giving high-profile guest lectures at both universities. They presented their data, discussed methodological limitations, and suggested improvements for future research. This exchange of ideas and techniques proved fruitful, with many spectators impressed by the students’ scientific work. The event was a testament to the power of blending adventure with STEM, showcasing the incredible achievements of these young explorers.

Looking Ahead

The Polar Academy’s commitment to STEM education and environmental research is paving the way for future explorers. By integrating hands-on scientific experiments into their expeditions, they provide students with unique learning experiences that contribute valuable data to global research efforts. As the Academy continues to explore, discover, and inspire, they invite others to follow their journey and support their mission to advance our understanding of the polar regions.