2nd annual Polar Day fosters appreciation of the polar regions

Tuesday, May 13, 2014 - 12:27pm

by Hester Blum, for the Polar Center

Penn Staters have experienced 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. 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 (held in April 2013), 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 remote operated vehicles (ROVs) of oceanic visionary Buzz Scott of OceansWide, who gave young Polar Day participants the thrill of operating a ROV at the McCoy Natatorium.

Yet science alone cannot describe our experiences of the Arctic and Antarctica, and in this spirit Polar Day 2013 participants were 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.

Continuing that tradition, arguably the most uncanny moment during Polar Day 2014 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.  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 Dr. 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.

Felicity Aston

Felicity Aston, the first woman to traverse Antarctica solo

and the first human to do so by her own muscle-power alone.


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 by her own muscle-power alone. Aston described how she managed the psychological challenges of her isolation while skiing 1744 km (1083 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. This was the primary realization and lesson of her voyage: "Keep getting out of the tent." Aston’s talk was organized by geographers Andrew Carleton (a Polar Center steering committee member) and Lorraine Dowler.



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.