Students On Ice

Brielle Tobin poses at the Nordic Trails Center on Casper Mountain recently. Tobin is traveling to Antarctica with a group of 66 students in the Students On Ice program. The students will study such subjects as climate change, the geopolitics of Antarctica and the wildlife of Antarctica. 

Dan Cepeda | Star-Tribune

As you read this, Brielle Tobin, a junior at Natrona County High School, is exploring Antarctica.

She’s scheduled to travel around Skontorp Cove, which is inside Paradise Harbor, known for deep blue glaciers and waters so calm they look like glass.

Tobin is one of 66 students from around the world on an expedition called Students on Ice. The traveling group includes high school and college students, educators, scientists, historians and other polar experts.

People can’t live in Antarctica year-around, and travel is limited to about 40,000 tourists a year. Tobin has been excited to be among the small percentage of the world’s population in history to set foot on the continent.

"I've really been interested in marine biology for a majority of my life,” she said Dec. 24, a day before she took her first in a series of planes to Argentina, where she boarded a vessel to the South Pole. “Antarctica, I think, will deepen my understanding of many parts of science that I don't get to learn about here."

Throughout the trip, students have been cruising in smaller Zodiac boats, lowering nets into the water and pulling up aquatic life. Back on ship, they’ve been studying the life under microscopes as researchers explained to them what they’re seeing.

Later Sunday, according to the itinerary of Tobin’s trip, the group will visit Cuverville Island, populated by a large colony of Gentoo penguins.

Tobin, who enjoys travel, is thrilled to see whales and seals again. But this trip is her first opportunity to observe penguins in their natural habitat. She’ll see thousands.

The expedition includes a visit to the Ukrainian research station, Vernadsky, and research on climate change.

Derek Mueller, a professor of geography and environmental studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, noted that there are not many long-term records of Antarctica's climate, particularly in the middle of the continent because it's so remote.

But Mueller, who is on the expedition, wrote in an email that scientists have found that the Antarctic peninsula is warming far more rapidly than the global average and that the ocean is warming rapidly as well. 

Large ice shelves made up of floating glacial ice have been breaking up completely.

"Some collapses have been shown to be unprecedented in the last 10,000 years," he said. "This has released icebergs to drift in the ocean but also has 'unblocked' the glaciers that fed the ice shelf. ...

"The recently unblocked glaciers are now delivering ice to the ocean at a far greater rate, which has raised sea level and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future."

This time of year is summer in the Southern Hemisphere. There’s almost 24 hours of daylight in Antarctica, which lets students make the most of their time.

Temperatures range from 30 degrees to minus 10 degrees. The program provided students with a list of clothes and boots necessary for the trip.

“I think I had to buy less than some people who are going because I live here, and it's colder,” she said.

The portion of the trip from Argentina to Antarctica and back costs about $9,878, according to Students on Ice.

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Tobin raised the money by holding bake sales and by working for her parents. She said she heard about the Antarctica program while participating in another student travel program, People to People.

Students hail from Australia, Switzerland and China. The majority are from the United States and Canada -- Students on Ice is based in Quebec -- including the Arctic regions of Canada.

“I’m really excited to meet everyone on the boat because there’s people from, I believe, 12 or 14 different countries,” she said.

Students on the trip will learn the history and geopolitics of Antarctica, including the Antarctic Treaty System, which was signed in December 1959 and attempts to keep the land pristine.

As she prepared for the trip, Tobin, who is interested in a career in medicine, following her radiation oncologist father, researched a paper on the treaty for a class at school.

“There were about nine different countries that were active on the continent, and they decided this place should be somewhere that is free from war and stuff like that,” she said.

Much can be learned from Antarctica through research, and it’s not just limited to the environmental and climate studies. NASA finds meteorites on the continent.

“They’re easier to spot with the snow,” she said. “They have conditions similar to Mars down there, so they can experiment with different rovers.”

Sunday is the final full day of Tobin’s expedition. The ship begins journeying back to South America on Sunday night.

Reach political reporter Laura Hancock at 307-266-0581 or at laura.hancock@trib.com. Follow her on Twitter: @laurahancock.

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