Day 0: Introduction and Background

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Photo courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions

December 17, 2016

Greetings from the Bergstrom International Airport in Austin, TX!  I will be posting here to chronicle my participation in the National Geographic / Lindblad Expedition to Antarctica as a Grosvenor Teacher Fellow.

About MeI am currently in my seventh year as a high school teacher at the Liberal Arts and Science Academy (LASA) in Austin, Texas.  LASA is a public magnet school which draws students from the entirety of Austin Independent School District.  Currently, I teach three courses — Planet Earth, Organic Chemistry, and Advanced Organic Chemistry.  Planet Earth is a project-based geobiology course with a major field work component, which consists of the students completing field surveys of organisms in local Austin-area parks and preserves.  Organic Chemistry is an elective course which covers the lecture and laboratory content of the first undergraduate course in organic chemistry.  Advanced Organic Chemistry is an elective course framed as an independent study, in which students address the content of the second undergraduate course in organic chemistry.  I also sponsor our school’s Science Olympiad team, and we compete around the nation in this science and engineering competition.  Outside of teaching, my outdoor interests include backpacking (currently attempting to piece together the Pacific Crest Trail through section hikes), birding, fly fishing, and photography.

About the Grosvenor Teacher Fellow (GTF) Program: The National Geographic / Lindblad GTF program, currently in its 10th year, is a professional development program for K-12 classroom teachers in the U.S. and Canada. Through the program, educators are allowed to participate in expeditions to unique areas around the world aboard National Geographic / Lindblad ships and bring these experiences back to their schools and communities through unique place-based activities.  The program was established to honor former National Geographic Society Chairman Gilbert M. Grosvenor’s lifetime commitment to geographic education. The expeditions were donated in perpetuity to the National Geographic Society by Sven-Olof Lindblad and Lindblad Expeditions to mark Grosvenor’s 70th birthday in 2006 and to honor his service in enhancing and improving geographic education across the United States (Source: National Geographic Society).  The end goal of both the program and its teachers is to increase the geographic knowledge and global awareness of the next generation.

My ExpeditionI will be participating in the National Geographic / Lindblad expedition to Antarctica. This expedition will span almost two weeks, from December 17 to December 30.  For most of this time, I will be aboard the National Geographic Explorer. This ship was built in July 1981 and originally launched as a passenger ferry. Acquired in 2007 by Lindblad Expeditions, the ship has been extensively refurbished into an ice-class expedition ship (Source: National Geographic). Notably, this ship is much larger than that upon which I traveled last summer in the Gulf with NOAA.

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The National Geographic Explorer. Photo courtesy of Lindblad Expeditions.

Traveling with me are two other high school educators – Samuel Northern, a librarian at Simpson Elementary school in Franklin, KY, and Randy French, a science teacher at Genesco Central School in upstate New York.  I had the opportunity to meet Samuel and Randy at the GTF program orientation at National Geographic Headquarters in Washington D.C. this past spring. Both are extremely talented educators, from which I have a great deal to learn, and I feel extremely fortunate to get to participate with them on this expedition.

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The 2016 Grosvenor Teacher Fellows, on the steps of National Geographic Headquarters. Photo courtesy of Winn Brewer, National Geographic.

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With Gary Knell, president and CEO of the National Geographic Society, during program orientation in Washington D.C.

Also on the expedition will be a team of scientists, naturalists, photographers, videographers, and historians from National Geographic and Lindblad Expeditions.  My immediate mentor is Ian Strachan, a naturalist and photographer with an incredible wealth of experience aboard National Geographic / Lindblad expedition vessels.

Starting today, I fly to Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I will spend Sunday, December 18. The following morning, we will be taking a charter flight over Patagonia to Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world. In Ushuaia, we will board the National Geographic Explorer and embark for Antarctica. This will immediately involve traveling out of the Beagle Channel, a major strait in the Tierra del Fuego archipelago, and into the Drake Passage, which lies between Cape Horn and the Antarctic Peninsula. As there is no land around the world at the latitudes of the Drake Passage, there is nothing to impede the flow of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. Accordingly, these are some of the most violent waters in the world. After crossing the Drake, we will arrive at the Antarctic Peninsula and begin the major portion of the expedition, which will last from December 21 to 26.

My GoalsOne of the classes I teach, entitled “Planet Earth,” focuses on the relationship between geology, geography, and biology, using the lenses of biodiversity, biogeography, and species interactions.  Geographic literacy is incredibly important for my students, as it not only gives them a better sense of what exists in the world, in terms of geology and biology, but also of how humans have impacted the biology of the world throughout our history.  In fact, I would argue that geographic literacy is more important now than it ever has been, as many different areas of the world are radically changing due to the effects of climate change and other human impact.

In my course, we address three main questions:

  1. How has the physical world affected the biological world throughout the history of life?
  2. How has the biological world affected the physical world throughout the history of life?
  3. Is life fragile or resilient?

Through my learning associated with this expedition, I hope to answer these questions for Antarctica. They become:

  1. How has the physical world affected the biological world throughout the history of Antarctica’s life?
  2. How has the biological world affected the physical world throughout the history of Antarctica’s life?
  3. Is Antarctica’s life fragile or resilient?

Upon my return, I plan to utilize my expedition to Antarctica to create an activity on allopatric speciation for my students. In this activity, students will investigate the geologic history of Antarctica and how this history has affected the evolution of organisms there over geologic time. The activity will incorporate the media I obtain during the voyage, as well as the knowledge I gain during it.

To preface this expedition, I began looking at research on the evolutionary history of penguins and the geologic history of Antarctica. Almost serendipitously, I discovered that one of the preeminent labs is based in Austin, at The University of Texas. This is the lab of Dr. Julia Clarke, whose research focuses on “using phylogenetic methods and diverse data types to gain insight into the evolution of birds, avian flight, and the co-option of the flight stroke for underwater diving…to inform how avian diversity and distributions have changed across their deep histories” (Source: Clarke Lab Website). I immediately contacted Dr. Clarke, and she graciously put me in touch with one of her graduate students, Chris Torres, whose research utilized the fossil record and molecular data to investigate the evolution of birds.  I was able to meet with Chris a couple of weeks ago, and I gained a great deal of incredibly valuable information to preface my trip. I can’t thank Chris enough!  Here are some of the main things I learned from him:

  1. The earliest penguin fossils date to around 55 million years ago (mya), which was notably before Antarctica was frozen!  The ecosystem then resembled modern-day Tasmania. There were still extremes in terms of longs nights and long days (depending on the season), but there was notably no ice. Penguins were adapting to an environment that doesn’t exist anymore!
  2. A critical transition period was the opening of the Drake Passage, around 40 mya. This passage formed when South America and Antarctica broke apart from one another. Before the opening of this passage, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans were entirely separated, and much of the warm water from lower latitudes was able to get to Antarctica. The opening of the passage joined the Atlantic and the Pacific and represented the birth of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, which flows clockwise from west to east around Antarctica. This current served to climatically isolate Antarctica, eventually led to its freezing, and keeps it frozen today.
  3. The violent waters of the Drake Passage (as there is no land around the world at these latitudes to impede currents) have further served to isolate Antarctica. This is extremely important when considering allopatric speciation on this continent.
  4. One of the most interesting areas to observe wildlife is the Antarctic Convergence, where the extremely cold waters of the Antarctic meet the warmer waters of lower latitudes. Here, the cold waters sink beneath the warmer waters, which results in an upwelling of nutrients.  A food chain has developed along this Convergence, consisting of phytoplankton, copepods, krill, fish, whales, seals, penguins, albatrosses, and many other species.

Tomorrow morning, I will be in Buenos Aires and well on my way to the South Pole!

David Walker
Grosvenor Teacher Fellow

Antarctica Expedition
National Geographic Society
Lindblad Expeditions

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