Polar Day showcases cool research & art

Spring is coming earlier in the year than it used to, according to the Arctic.

Well, the Arctic can’t talk — but according to data that ecologist Eric Post and his team have gathered in that region, spring is arriving about two to three weeks earlier than it did in 2002.

We learned about this and more at the fourth annual Polar Day, hosted by Penn State’s Polar Center on Tuesday, March 22. A variety of activities and presentations throughout the day highlighted several aspects of polar exploration and research. Presentations ranged from an ROV — remotely operated vehicle — demonstration to photography to musical interpretations of data from polar regions. 

One of those musical interpretations was courtesy of music professor Mark Ballora, who specializes in “data sonification” — translating data into music. Post shared his data with Ballora, who then shared his music with those attending the event. The data focused on caribou and muskox populations in the Arctic, as well as their food sources. Keep an eye on (and an ear to) this blog — later this week you’ll be able to hear Ballora’s sonification, too.

One of the ways that Post and his colleagues collected these data was by using drones. Throughout the morning on Tuesday, Polar Day attendees at the Forest Resources Building saw two different types of drones used to collect data — a quadcopter, and a foam drone, which is similar in shape to an airplane, although much smaller in size. In fact, in order to launch the foam drone, it must be literally thrown into the air — kind of like you would a paper airplane. But this one has a motor, allowing it to stay aloft longer than its paper cousin.

Among the foam drones on display was one used last summer by Christian John, a graduate student in Post’s lab, to collect data in Greenland just above the Arctic Circle. A camera able to see near-infrared light and a GPS were attached to the UAV — unmanned aerial vehicle — and John was able to collect data on where the wildlife were hanging out and on plants in the area.

Drones are not allowed to fly on campus, so attendees didn’t get to see the drones in action, but John did have two of the near-infrared light-detecting cameras with him and took attendees outside to check them out.

Meanwhile, a couple of blocks away at the McCoy Natatorium, Buzz Scott was letting students try out an Arctic survival suit and showing them how to navigate an ROV in the water. Scott is president and founder of Oceanswide, a non-profit organization focused on marine research and education. The ROVs take photos of marine life, and according to Scott, have found at least 400 new species. The survival suits are used for training and emergencies only — if needed, a person can survive for up to two days in frigid waters in one of these suits.

Other presenters during the day included Doug Miller, professor of geography; Paul Miller, aka DJ Spooky, who created an “acoustic portrait” of Antarctica; Suzi Eszterhas, an award-winning wildlife photographer; and Susan Kaplan, director of Bowdoin College’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center.

Members of the Polar Center come from a variety of disciplines across the University representing the life, physical, and social sciences, as well as the humanities. Polar Day was a great way to showcase this interdisciplinary collaboration.

Members of the news media interested in learning more about the Polar Center or talking to any of the experts there should contact Patty Craig at 814-863-4663 or plc103@psu.edu or Pernille Sporon Bøving at psb12@psu.edu.

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