Basalt teacher off to Antarctica
A party of as many as a million naturally dapper, tuxedo-clad penguins – that’s the only black-tie affair Basalt High School science teacher Andre Wille plans to attend on New Year’s Eve.
Wille, a BHS chemistry, biology and physical science teacher of 10 years, is traveling to Antarctica on Dec. 27 for five weeks to help conduct research on three colonies of Adelie penguins as part of the National Science Foundation program, “Teachers Experiencing Antarctica and the Arctic” (TEA).
The project – which hopes to reveal more about melting polar ice caps, using the Adelie as an indicator species – is an opportunity for Wille to return to field work, and to take his students along him, via the Internet.
“Science,” Wille admits, “can be pretty dry. But it can also be pretty exciting if you’re out in the field doing it.”
In Antarctica, Wille will join a large research party comprised of several Ph.D. scientists, and teachers like himself, to study the Adelie. In recent history, melting polar ice has drastically altered Antarctica’s shorelines, and as a result, the feeding patterns and population centers of the Adelie.
“The melting affects where the food supply is – which is mainly fish and crill, or shrimp – so that determines how far the penguin has to travel for food,” Wille said. “If they have to travel too far, they use too much energy trying to get the food, as opposed to how much they’re gaining.”
“In my class today we were just checking out what one of teachers is up to down there,” Wille said Dec. 9. “She’s working with some geologists on Mt. Erebus and if you go to her journal, she’s uploaded digital pictures – and there they are out in the field on the rim of this volcano. That was two days ago, it’s pretty cool.”
Wille plans to bring along a digital camera to post similar photos depicting his Adelie research, along with journal entries, on the Internet (www.tea.rice.edu).
“Students can send e-mail to the teachers with questions to create a back-and-forth dialogue,” he said. “And we’ll also be using video conferencing, so we can have live video interaction with my classes at prearranged times. It’s kind of a novelty, but it’s pretty exciting too. The goal is to use the available technology to try and bring it to life for students, and in turn, to get the general public to understand the relevancy of arctic research.”
Wille and the other researchers can expect sunshine 24 hours a day during the arctic summer, although the weather at the bottom of the Earth may not always be so rosy.
“I’m expecting it to be like Aspen in January,” Wille said, “but it’s really windy. The wind chill is a huge factor, and you get ground blizzards too, but the temperatures are mainly above zero. I think.”
When not out gathering data, Wille will be trying to stay warm at field camp, comprised of primitive bunkhouses jury-rigged from old 10-by-10-foot shipping containers, he said.
“It’ll be real intensive because we have a very narrow window of when we can do research, that correlates with the nesting seasons of the penguins,” he said. “There’s actually a computer that measures the penguins’ weight – as they enter the nesting area they have to step on a little scale – so it’s all done by remote sensing. Then we can figure out if they’re gaining energy when they go out to get fish or if they’re having to swim too far to where they’re losing weight.”
A small sampling of Adelie will also be fitted with radio tags, so researchers can monitor their exact movements as they swim typical, weeklong feeding excursions. Incidentally, mother and father Adelies cooperate in caring for their fledglings: One will stay behind while the other goes fishing, and then they reverse roles.
“There’s certainly a shift of the Adelies’ demographics,” Wille said. “It could be natural – we just don’t know what’s causing the ice shelf to melt. There are a lot of different theories, one of which is that it’s human caused … but it could be a natural cycle too.”
“All disciplines of science are taking place in Antarctica,” Wille said, “and most of the research all has to do with global change and trying to get a picture of past climates compared with what’s happening now. Using the penguins as an indicator, we’re trying to understand some of the bigger changes that are taking place.”
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