Hundreds attend second annual Polar Day

Penn Staters have been granted exceptional exposure to Arctic and Antarctic conditions recently -- and not just because of the unusually harsh winter. The second annual "Polar Day" (April 19, 2014), the signature event of Penn State's new Polar Center, brought together hundreds of university and community members alike. This followed the robust success of the inaugural Polar Day in the spring of 2013. The Polar Center's mission is to further the study, teaching, and understanding of polar science and the polar regions. Directed by biology professor Eric Post, the center has provided opportunities for education and engagement, as well as a few surprises.

Visitors to the first Polar Day, for example, viewed the Oscar-nominated "Chasing Ice," a riveting film about nature photographer James Balog's documentation of climate change; at this year's event, scientist Julienne Stroeve of the National Snow and Ice Data Center provided a further vantage point on the subject. Both years, the Polar Center has been proud to feature the ROVs (remote operated vehicles) of oceanic visionary Buzz Scott of OceansWide, who gave young Polar Day participants the thrill of operating a ROV at the Natatorium. Yet the sciences are not the only sources of our knowledge of the Arctic and Antarctica, the Polar Center recognizes, and in this spirit Polar Day participants were treated at the inaugural event to a haunting, brilliant poetry reading by the writer and naturalist Elizabeth Bradfield, whose volume Approaching Ice tells the history of polar exploration in verse.

Arguably the most uncanny moment in this year's Polar Day was provided by Penn State music professor Mark Ballora and visual arts graduate student Matt Kenney, who presented an aural experience unlike any that had been heard before: a "data sonification" of ice. This meant that Ballora and Kenney took a dataset -- in this case, 400,000 years of various kinds of Antarctic ice sheet data collected by Penn State researcher David Pollard, and created a sound for each item of data (ranging from percussive sounds to musical notes to the sound of water drops). When combined, the sonification allowed the audience to hear what 400,000 years of the Antarctic ice sheet's movement sounded like when compressed into six minutes. "Eerie," "alien," "sublime" were some of the responses overheard in the crowd.

Still, what continues to resonate most with most participants in this year's Polar Day was the electrifying talk by Felicity Aston, the first woman to traverse Antarctica solo and the first human to do so under her own muscle alone. Aston talked a lot about how she managed the psychological challenges of her isolation while skiing 1,744 km (1,083 miles) over 59 days through a continent routinely characterized as barren, blank, empty. She kept company with her own shadow, with her hallucinations, and with the sun, with whom she had conversations. "Keep getting out of the tent," Aston told us. It was the primary realization and lesson of her voyage. "Keep getting out of the tent."

The Polar Center provides a platform for Penn State's world-renowned faculty in life, physical, and social sciences in order to communicate to the broader public the unique beauty and increasingly urgent scientific and cultural value of the Arctic and Antarctic regions. The Polar Center invites interested alumni to contact Outreach Coordinator Pernille Sporon Bøving at psb12@psu.edu for more information. http://polar.psu.edu/

Last Updated May 15, 2014