Polar Regions

When BBC’s Planet Earth series came out in 2006, our family was psyched. Although the entire first series is now conveniently available on Netflix, back then, watch-on-demand technology did not exist (at least not in our house). So, we marked the calendar for the days it would air, and cozied up to watch and learn about shallow seas, deserts, and polar regions. I remember telling my uncle, who has always held a place in his heart for nature and the natural world, about the show, and him replying that he couldn’t stand to watch another show about polar bears dying. He was tired of feeling dismayed and helpless. He understood the plight and humans’ role in shifting arctic habitats but couldn’t bear to be saddened yet again. I think I understood.

As environmental educators, we think a lot about messaging, especially regarding the topic of climate change and climate science. As a field, we contemplate how to reach specific audiences – whether it’s a second grader who doesn’t yet understand what a CO2 molecule is, a climate change denier, or my uncle who just can’t take the negativity any more. We’ll come back to that first one in a bit (see For Families) but in the meantime, I want to tell my Uncle Mike, if you’re reading this, do NOT watch the below video. Do not! This video, viewed millions of times since it was posted in December 2017, was filmed by renowned biologists and photographers, Paul Nicklen and Cristina Mittermeier, founders of Sea Legacy.

There’s a full story on this video and answers to many peoples’ questions on National Geographic but the line I find most important is this one from Mittermeier who took some amount of criticism for not helping the bear: “In the end, I did the only thing I could: I used my camera to make sure we would be able to share this tragedy with the world.” (By the way, she, Nicklen, and crew did not have the supplies or weapons to assist the bear, and no person may legally feed wild polar bears in Canada.)

To Mittermeier, Nicklen, and others who carry out the work of Sea Legacy, whose mission is to “create healthy and abundant oceans for us and for the planet,” the stories we tell – even the sad ones – can spark global conversations, inspire people to act, and give people hope. “We believe that producing powerful media and art that gives people hope is imperative. Hope is empowerment. Hope is a solution. Hope is a game changer.”

And guess what: there is some hope for polar bears. The World Wildlife Fund notes that “polar bears are among the few large carnivores that are still found in roughly their original habitat and range – and in some places, in roughly their natural numbers.” Global populations have grown in recent years.

Their habitat, however, is still severely threatened – but that’s why we’re here. The objectives of environmental education are: build awareness, share knowledge, shift attitudes, offer skills, and encourage action. Here we are, with videos like this and shows like Planet Earth, at stages one and two – awareness and knowledge. And many people – like Uncle Mike – are clearly at stage three, attitude shift and feelings of concern. Now we just need to move on to skills and action. Here are a few ideas:

Did you know…

Polar bears are classified as marine mammals. They spend the majority of their time hunting and swimming in the Arctic Sea. There are 19 noted subpopulations of polar bears in the Arctic – only one of which is now listed as declining. The total polar bear population in the wild is thought to be 22,000-31,000. Since 2003, the WWF Polar Bear Tracker has followed polar bears in several regions in the Arctic. Their positions are beamed from collars on the bears’ necks, via satellite to scientists, and then to this real-time tracker. Fun Fact: only female polar bears are tracked because male’s necks are wider than their heads, and these collars slide right off! Find out more about these majestic bears and what you might do to help them at the World Wildlife Fund.

Nature Net News Flashback from December 2014:

Instant Outdoor Expert: Arctic vs. Antarctic
Many might think the only difference between the Arctic (North Pole) and Antarctic (South Pole) is the animals that live there (hint: polar bears live in the north and penguins live in the south). However, because of their huge geographic differences, the two poles vary quite a bit. Viewed from above, the Arctic is really an ocean surrounded by land (Russia, Canada and Greenland, most notably), while the Antarctic is a land mass surrounded by ocean. In the Arctic, the sea ice that forms is largely trapped in the Arctic Ocean, and as it sloshes around, ice floes collide and merge into ice ridges. Because these ridges are so thick (6-9 feet), they can remain frozen even through summer months. Conversely, in the Antarctic, where the sea ice can move freely, it tends to drift into warmer waters and melt each year. Ocean currents, as well as freshwater inlets, also affect ice growth in the Arctic, creating more ice cover, while ocean winds carrying moisture create more snow cover in the Antarctic. Find out more differences between our poles form the National Snow and Ice Data Center

To broaden your Arctic knowledge, find out about fascinating arctic phenomena like northern lights, coronas, ice blink and more.

To Do This Month:

February 15th: The UW Arboretum is an exciting place on the weekends- from 9-11:30am, students, faculty, and other researchers will present findings from projects on Arboretum land and in the Lake Wingra watershed during “Science Day”, the annual research symposium.  That night, from 6:30-8pm, meet up for a “new moon night walk”. Since there is no full moon in February, you will walk with no moon in sight. A naturalist will guide you as you explore the night sky and sounds. Bring a small flashlight. Both events are free with no registration required – just meet at the Visitor Center. View their entire calendar here: https://arboretum.wisc.edu/visit/events/

February 17th: Children of the Rainforest at Olbrich Gardens- The Children of the Rainforest series offers performances for families to celebrate cultural differences in rainforest regions around the world. Admission, which is $5 for adults (ages 13 & up) and $3 for children (ages 12 & under, but free under 2), includes entry to Olbrich’s tropical Bolz Conservatory. Performances are at 10:30am & 1:30pm, and doors open 30 minutes prior to each performance. Tickets available at the door starting an hour before each performance. Learn more here: http://www.olbrich.org/events/special.cfm

February 23rd: Nature Explorations at Madison Children’s Museum 11am-12pm: Explore plants, animals, and the cycles and processes of nature through investigations in science, STEM, and art. You will learn about something different each week! Sometimes visitors may plant seeds, or paint, or explore the many aspects of our natural world through projects that look deeper at our solar system, the climate, animals, and nature’s seasonal cycles and processes. In the process we’ll exercise our minds and our fine motor skills.

February 24th: Bird and Nature Outing at Edna Taylor Conservation Park Area: Join a naturalist for a free and easy, family-friendly walk from Aldo Leopold Nature Center into the beautiful Edna Taylor Conservation Park and enjoy a bit of nature education along the way. This event occurs every 4th Saturday of the Month from 10am to 11:30am.

February 27th: National Geographic Live at Overture Center for the Arts: Go around the world in search of big cats with award-winning photographer Steve Winter. Tickets are $35-$45, and it is guaranteed to be an experience you will never forget! The show starts at 7:30 and will run for about an hour, with a brief and informal Q and A session held after. Buy tickets here: http://www.overture.org/events/big-cats

Henry Vilas Zoo

Polar Bear Craft

Polar Books

February Events

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For Educators:

Arctic Education

The National Science Foundation offers a myriad of ideas to get your classroom engaged in learning about the Arctic and Antarctic. Here are a few highlights:

Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears is an online “professional development magazine which focuses on preparing elementary teachers to teach polar science concepts while also integrating inquiry-based science and literacy instruction.” The site, hosted by Ohio State University, offers lessons and unit plans on topics such as “A Sense of Place” and “Energy and the Polar Environment.” It also includes a section on equity in the classroom, and a podcast library.

Polar TREC (Teachers and Researchers Exploring and Collaborating) sends educators (both formal and non-formal) on a multi-week field research experience in polar regions. While in the field, teachers and researchers connect back to classrooms through online journals, message boards, photo albums, and “Polar Connect” calls from the field. Even if you’re not the teacher in the field, your classroom can still connect to teachers and on-going research through the Polar TREC Virtual Base Camp. And yes, (because I was wondering I looked it up) it’s pretty much an all-expenses-paid experience for participating teachers (minus long underwear, and gloves), but the application process is quite competitive.

For Families:

Educating Our Kids About Climate Change

There’s an organization in California that, similar to Nature Net, is tapping into the power of collaboration to foster environmental education. ChangeScale aims to “reach more young people, while continually improving the quality, relevance, and effectiveness of environmental education in [their] region.”  Their vision, like that of many environmental educators, is a “world where all generations are inspired with the environmental know-how to create healthy communities and a healthy planet.” And just as importantly, they see the pathway to environmental literacy as scaled or tiered.

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It’s okay that second graders do not understand what a CO2 molecule is. At their age, second graders should be focused on – and we can help them in – enjoying spending time outside, and having a basic understanding of nature. As children age, they can move on to caring about and for nature, understanding ecological concepts and imagining ecological solutions, and becoming stewards of the environment.

If you’re looking for more concrete ways to guide your child (or grandchild/niece/nephew/important-mini-in-your-life) on this pathway to environmental and climate change literacy, here are a few ideas from National Geographic, and TreeHugger:

Or, try some of these tips from Nature Net member and Aldo Leopold Nature Center staffer, Brenna Holzhauer, who spoke with Wisconsin Public Radio on this topic in 2014. She recommends avoiding fear and anxiety with children (so, not only keeping that polar bear video away from my uncle, but also from children below a certain age), sharing success stories, and focusing on ways they can control their immediate surroundings. Take a listen here:


Postscript: Just as I was finishing up this post, one of my favorite radio shows, To The Best of Our Knowledge, aired an entire hour devoted to “Imagining Climate Change.” The broadcast focuses on what might change our conversation about global warming when we “tap into the imaginative worlds of novelists and artists?” Check it out HERE.

Betsy bylineCopy of Betsy bylineBetsy Parker is an environmental educator who supports all children, families, and classrooms getting their recommended daily allowance of #VitaminN.
Funding for Nature Net and the Nature Net News blog is provided by American Girl Fund for Children.