Australian Antarctic Magazine — Issue 14: 2008

Today’s youth – tomorrow’s Antarctic scientists

Jane (left), Polar Knutsen, Caroline and Dr Rob Massom, measure snow cover properties of sea ice
Jane (left), Polar Knutsen, Caroline and Dr Rob Massom, measure snow cover properties of sea ice (Photo: ACE CRC)
Polar bear, Polar Knutsen, interviews Dr Jan Leiser

The ranks of future polar scientists could swell considerably after the efforts of teachers and other educators during the International Polar Year. Take Tasmanian teachers, Jane Dobson and Caroline Lapworth, for example. The pair participated in the Sea Ice Physics and Ecosystem eXperiment (SIPEX) late last year, as part of the project’s ‘education and outreach’ ambitions to communicate and engage a wider audience in the research.

Through their daily blogs, interviews and online education packages, the pair informed students and teachers from schools around the world about the science, the scientists, and daily life on an ice-breaker. Jane and Caroline also had a secret weapon; fluffy off-sider, Polar Knutsen — a small polar bear given to them as a travel buddy by Rosetta Primary School in Hobart. Polar’s job was to interview scientists and other expeditioners during the voyage and report his findings to students.

Among other things, the trio provided information to teachers for classroom experiments, such as understanding the science behind frostbite, ocean currents and snow density. They also posted information on a range of questions being investigated during the SIPEX voyage, relating to sea ice physics, sea ice ecology and oceanography, and answered ‘Questions of the Day’ from school students.

'The educational opportunities that this project has opened up to students, not just in Tasmania, but worldwide, are fantastic,' the pair said on their return from Antarctica.

'This is the first time it has been possible to share information interactively from Antarctica by teachers in Australia, and we feel proud and privileged to be a part of it.'

To read the SIPEX interviews and blogs, or to find educational material relating to the voyage research, visit

Jane and Caroline’s blog: Day 32, 6 October 2007

'We decided to hang out with Dr Rob [Massom] today to see what he gets up to out on the ice. Dr Rob is interested in the snow that collects on the ice floe, in particular looking at the different sorts of snow that collect on the ice, and what role the snow plays in controlling heat exchange between the ocean and the atmosphere, and in stopping light from filtering through to the sea.

Dr Rob works on the transect — he digs snow pits and analyses the snow. A snow pit is a hole in the snow with vertical sides that allows Dr Rob to see the different layers of snow that have collected on the ice floe. When you look at it closely there are actually lots of different types of snow. Snow is made of ice crystals, and different shaped crystals (grains) give the snow different characteristics. When snow first falls its grains are angular and pointy and look a bit like the typical snowflake we all think of. Snow that has been hit by the wind has more rounded grains and forms a hard crust on the surface. Snow that has melted and refrozen has larger rounded grains. Older and colder snow has large crystals and forms layers called ‘depth hoar', which are very crumbly. Dr Rob looks at the layers in the snow pit and records what sort of snow there is at different depths. He also takes snow density samples throughout the depth of the pit, so he can see how the density of the snow changes with depth. He also uses a conductivity meter to measure the wetness of the snow. Liquid water conducts electricity, as the molecules can move around to carry a current. Frozen water (like snow crystals) on the other hand doesn’t conduct electricity as well, because the molecules are in a fixed position and can’t move around to carry a current. So the conductivity tester sends a current through the snow — the wetter the snow is the more current will pass through it and visa versa.

We were quite surprised at how clearly we could see different layers within the snow and you can roughly gauge how firm the snow is just by sticking a pencil into the different layers and seeing how easily it goes in. A lot of scientists use really complex equipment that most people wouldn’t have a clue about how it works, but scientists do use simple techniques too, in fact the simpler something is the better, especially down here where the cold affects everything!'