Frozen Journeys at the End of the Earth

In the Northeast, people are familiar with freezing temperatures and cold winters. Snow and ice are common obstacles in getting around town near our SUNY campuses in the winter months. But compared to other places on Earth, like Antarctica, our cold could be thought of as warm.

Antarctica, which contains the South Pole, is Earth’s fifth largest continent and the coldest, driest, windiest place on Earth. The average temperature during the coldest part of the year drops to around −81 °F. With that kind of cold, people can’t live there for a long time. Scientists instead spend periods of time at research stations there studying south polar oceans, ice, atmosphere, and birds and marine animals. Students involved with study abroad through The College at Brockport can also experience this incredible landscape and ecosystem first hand by travelling to and studying in Antarctica.

A Journey Like No Other

Brockport’s Antarctica Program includes a two week excursion in December ("summer" in Antarctica) aboard a modest-sized expedition cruise ship that begins in Ushuaia, Argentina, and sets off across the Drake Passage to the Antarctic Peninsula. This unique study-abroad experience has been a partnership between Brockport and Virginia Tech for six years, with the faculty leader flipping back and forth between those institutions every other year.

The 6-credit Antarctica program begins with a 3-credit online course in the fall in which students do readings and assignments and log-in for weekly lectures delivered by faculty experts from around the world. During the 3-credit excursion to Antarctica, students write field journals and conduct team research.

December is a relatively temperate month in the southern hemisphere, and this far south summer means nearly 24 hours of sunlight and temperatures momentarily as high as 40 °F each day. This unique experience gives students the opportunity to take bright, sunlit photos of nesting penguins, breaching whales, and hunting seals at noon or midnight.

But the unending sun is just one piece of what makes this study abroad experience so unique. Antarctica has an unusual history and holds a unique political position in the world. The 1959 Antarctic Treaty was the first arms-control agreement of the Cold War and set aside the continent as a demilitarized scientific preserve. Thanks to the Antarctica Treaty system, the continent is protected from mining, offshore oil prospecting, and military action and nuclear tests. Since scientists from around the world regard climate change as the biggest threat to Earth’s coldest continent, students study the landscape for signs of such change.

"You get to see what life and nature should be and how it existed before people settled. There’s a stark contrast, but it helps us understand how we can coexist."

- Brockport alumna

They see what biologists identify as regional effects of global climate change. As Brockport’s faculty leader Jamie Spiller explains, "in all the world, recent temperature increases have been most dramatic in the Antarctic Peninsula—changing the regional composition of penguin species that students will study as they visit penguin rookeries. Whereas the ice-pack loving, cooler temperature adapted Adelie penguin had long been predominant in the peninsula, there has recently been an influx of Gentoo penguins from more northern climes as the ice pack thins and temperatures increase. By seeing the emerging predominance of Gentoo in the area, students witness firsthand rapid ecological disruption associated with climate change."

Students finish this course and study-abroad adventure with a heightened sensitivity to the global environment and to their own cultural values and sensibilities.

According to Spiller, "While study abroad in other countries enables students to immerse themselves in cultures other than their own and thereby come to see their own lives in a fresh and critical way, this study-abroad trip matches that foreign immersion experience (while in Ushuaia, Argentina) with another rare experience—immersion in a non-human, alien landscape. This other-worldly encounter enables people to see human civilization itself in a fresh and critical light—and students see very tangible signs of the environmental effects of their own 'eco-tourism' and especially of global climate change."

And the "non-human, alien landscape" of Antarctica truly is spectacular. About 98 percent of Antarctica is covered in a sheet of ice an average of one mile thick. But the continent also boasts glaciers, mountains, and a volcano named for the Greek god, Erebus, the personification of darkness. This amazing geography is matched by equally amazing wildlife. During the trip, students are likely to see birds such as albatrosses, penguins and skuas, Weddell and leopard seals, and a variety of whales including southern killers, minkes, and humpbacks.

Kari Stoelting, an alumna of the Antarctica Study Abroad Program, fondly remembers her life-changing experience. "I was able to get up close and personal with penguins, whales, seals, and a vast array of birds. I spent a night sleeping in a hole on a glacier. I did a polar plunge in an active caldera. I got to experience ten days at sea abroad a Russian research vessel. And I hiked in one of the most beautiful national parks in South America."

Kari says she learned a lot about herself from the trip and her complex reactions to visiting such an other-worldly environment. She was not alone in this feeling. Brandon Nunnery, who participated in this program in 2011, told Brockport’s alumni magazine Kaleidoscope, "When you travel in the U.S. or Europe, or anywhere that has a human footprint, you see it—from sidewalks to pollution. But when you look around Antarctica, there simply is no footprint and you get to see what life and nature should be and how it existed before people settled. There’s a stark contrast, but it helps us understand how we can coexist."

Study Abroad at SUNY

It’s no secret that SUNY has an amazing global reach. In fact, a student at any SUNY institution has the opportunity to study abroad at more than 600 overseas studies programs, in more than 50 countries, and on all 7 continents. This trip to Antarctica is but one of the exciting opportunities to be found all across the world.

The Antarctica Program provides applied learning and experiential education for students of all disciplines. It helps students understand how this icy continent fits into the world, politically, historically and environmentally. And that’s why this student excursion to what many call Earth’s last frontier, its only unspoiled continent, is so important. As with all study abroad opportunities, this trip to Antarctica offers students a enriched learning opportunities to develop essential life skills, perform amazing research, and experience new cultures. And any student within the SUNY system can be a part of this, or hundreds of other momentous study abroad undertakings, as a way to experience a truly diverse education at home and abroad.

Published April 2016