Spring Preview: The Polaris Project

Students from the 2011 Polaris Project field season gather for their first day of data collection in the Siberian Arctic. Photo: Jorien Vonk. Spring 2013 finds the Polaris Project team abuzz with gearing up for this summer’s adventures in science education in the Siberian Arctic. The year also brings with it some changes and new faces.

The Polaris Project is an innovative collaboration among students, teachers and scientists that gives undergraduate students and new scientists hands-on research experience in the Arctic.

The National Science Foundation-funded (NSF) project was started in 2008 by a group of passionate scientists and educators spread throughout the country. Two of Polaris’ founding researchers are John Schade, a stream ecologist at St. Olaf College in Minnesota, and Max Holmes, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts.

Polaris Project PIs Max Holmes (left) and John Schade (right) take a break to enjoy the sunset. Photo: Jorien Vonk

Polaris: A High-Impact Project

Over the last several years, the Polaris Project has introduced dozens of students to Arctic field research. The project has very simple, straightforward goals its collaborators work to achieve, Schade explained.

“We really have three overarching goals that are equally important to us. What got us really going in the beginning was the opportunity to train the next generation of Arctic scientists,” he said.


The program aims to:

  • Provide a training framework for students and new researchers (i.e., post-doctorate scientists) who have never been to the Arctic.
  • Advance Arctic science in general. The Polaris Project team achieves this goal by focusing on a variety of scientific questions that need answers. Research is usually centered on Arctic watersheds, the impacts of climate change and other of today’s most pressing issues in the region.
  • Reach out and educate the public. Each year Polaris Project participants take their work, and the excitement it generates, into the community (i.e., schools, churches and professional conferences) to engage people around the nation about the region and why the Arctic is such an interesting place that needs attention.

“We are filling in data gaps in the Siberian Arctic by doing some good science. And at the same time we are bringing students up there that have never seen this region. The students have an experience that’s really once in a life time,” Schade said. “Those two things make the Polaris Project a high-impact project.”

An Ever Evolving Project

Transporting 33 students and researchers to remote regions of Russia is a big undertaking …. and requires a lot of gear!

Last summer 33 students and scientists traveled to Siberia. They spent much of the time looking at everything from stream processes to the impacts of fires on shrubs under the direction of Max Holmes and others. Holmes is the director of the Polaris Project.

(For a recap of the 2012 Polaris Field experience see field notesrecent coverage of the field season.)

Students gather samples to study carbon respiration at the outflow of muddy streams draining eroding cliffs.

The Polaris Project is constantly evolving and growing. And 2013 is no different. “The main change for 2013 is that instead of everyone traveling together in one huge group (last year we had 33 people), this year - and presumably in future years - we'll have a ‘Core and Satellite’ model,” Holmes explained.

Core students are those who are completely new to the Polaris Project family and the study area. They will be exposed to a variety of environments, scientific questions and field research experiences. Satellite students, on the other hand, are returning students who already have a focused research topic.

Staying Connected

Another phase in Polaris’ evolution is Holmes’ temporary departure. He recently took a leave of absence to join the NSF's Arctic System Science Program as its program director. But thanks to the multi-disciplinary team of co-PIs, the Polaris Project won’t skip a beat.

“Maybe they won't even miss me!  Actually, it is a great team with lots of experienced co-PIs, so I suspect things will move forward smoothly without me.  And I'm actually staying very much involved in the planning and science conversations,” Holmes said.   “I really love Polaris Project so I can't bear to be too separated!”

An aerial view of the Lena River near Yakutsk in Russia.

What’s to Come

This summer Schade and his colleagues will guide the team of Core and Satellite students as they focus on a single subwatershed of the Kolyma River. The Kolyma River runs through northeast Siberia and empties in the East Siberian Sea.

The 2013 field experience will include gathering detailed measurements on terrestrial carbon and looking at different carbon storage mechanisms to understand how the watershed functions as a whole.

Schade said he and the students will explore “what kinds of materials are being produced in the terrestrial system that are moving down slope, how they are impacting downhill ecosystems, and what’s coming in to the systems and being exported from the terrestrial parts of the watershed,” in hopes of understanding the connections between the terrestrial and aquatic parts of the watershed.

The Polaris Project summer field season is scheduled to start in July 2013 and will last four weeks.

The application deadline for 2013 closed February 1, but it’s never too late to start thinking about applying for the 2014 program. If you would like to learn more about the Polaris Project, visit http://www.thepolarisproject.org/ for additional information, blog entries, photos and more.   –Alicia Clarke