Ten Days on the Tundra (1)

“So why are you coming to Alaska?”

Two teenage faces stared at me, waiting patiently for an answer as I racked my brain for words that I could use to explain the next 2 weeks to a 14 and 15-year-old. I remembered a workshop I attended for fun at my university last year where scientists and graduate students packed a room for a morning and made painfully slow progress at putting together a 2 minute summary about their research that could be understood by their grandmother, someone from the media, or even their significant other. Communicating Your Science the series was called. I needed to communicate science.

Our conversation took place en route to Anchorage where I was headed in order to meet 8 middle and high school teachers who are flying in on Sunday from Maryland, Michigan, and Colorado. My boss and 2 other researchers will also come and when our team has arrived, we will fly to the Arctic Circle, north of the Brooks Mountain Range. Once there we’ll stay at a research station with about 100 other research scientists and their lab folks, all of whom are collecting data on everything from birds to soil microbes. Our team will be working on soil sampling, sorting and identifying. For two weeks we will have our faces toward the ground, in the field and in tent-like labs. The goal is to better understand what lives in the tundra environment, and what changes are currently happening with the permafrost thawing as our planet warms.

Much to my surprise, the boys’ eyes lit up and I was bombarded with question after question for much of the 5 hour flight. These kids were sharp! And educated well in salmon, whales, migratory birds, and bears. They told me everything they knew about these animals, native Alaskan culture, and described to me how their part of the planet rotates around the sun in an attempt to increase my understanding about 23 hours of daylight in mid-July. After giving me tips on where to see migrating birds, they proceeded to pick apart my working life, probing for details about wildlife research and education experiences I have had. I don’t believe I have ever had a more captive audience or have held anyone’s attention for so long.

The older teen was watching me with my face glued to the airplane window for an hour as we raced above mountain peaks poking through a thick blanket of clouds. Behind me I heard a child ask his father if what he looking at was snow or clouds. A long, snake-like glacier appeared below us, flanked by the two new mountain ranges it was creating, and feeling its power brought tears to my eyes. I turned to look at the teenage boy sitting next to me. He looked steadily at me and with a tiny smile said, “It’s pretty amazing, huh?” Our eyes met and I nodded, unable to communicate what this experience was already making me feel.

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