An icy landscape as a classroom
It's another subzero day in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, and eight students are cheerfully wading into waist-deep snow to ... count trees.Skip to next paragraph
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Soon the hair framing their faces is crisp with frost. But there's a method to this madness - they'll be comparing tree species in plots at a higher elevation. And doing this hands-on science - even if it is occasionally hand-numbing - is the reason they're here.
For people interested in arctic climates and cultures, the Center for Northern Studies in Wolcott, Vt., offers a rare opportunity. Because of the area's glacial history and current climate, some geological features and plant and animal adaptations resemble those in places much farther north, such as Alaska. And few universities in the United States offer the interdisciplinary approach the center is known for.
During January's intensive winter ecology course, students walk down to Bear Swamp to conduct experiments and to track the extreme temperatures. The 350-acre "cold sink," where air drains down from the surrounding mountains, is a landscape of stunted trees decorated with strands of pale green lichen.
They study how far light can penetrate into different types of snowpack, and learn how the weather affects subnivean creatures - the ones that stay under the snow to keep warm.
"Winter pushes everything to its limit, and then what's really important for survival becomes apparent," says Rosalind Yanishevsky, a visiting January-term student who is also a professor of ecology at Vermont's Marlboro College. She's just learned about a bird that loses half its body weight on a winter's night and has to eat constantly during the day.
Ms. Yanishevsky's first career was biology, but she discovered a passion for colder climates while studying bears in Montana.
"I think my right foot points north a couple inches," she says with a laugh. Her fellow students are undergraduates at nearby Sterling College in Craftsbury Common, a small environmentally focused school with which the center is now affiliated. Not all her classmates profess a love for the cold, but even the student from Puerto Rico is a good sport.
"People think we're a bunch of new-agers out in the woods, but this tends to be a fairly rigorous course," says Steven Young, a naturalist who founded the center in 1971 and has done research throughout the circumpolar North.
Winter ecology is the class that turns some students into northern studies majors. There, the North is seen through a blend of anthropology, economics, geology, history, biology, and literature.
Trips at the beginning and end of each academic year connect students to researchers and indigenous communities at the top of the world - from northern Canada to Finland.
"People always ask, 'What are you going to do when you graduate?' " says Ian McEwen, a northern studies major whose main interest is how indigenous communities will be affected by climate change. He might learn Russian and do research in Siberia - plans driven by his conviction that we all need to understand our planet better "so we can live in a way that works."
American academic interest in the Arctic dates back more than a century, says Douglas Anderson, director of the Laboratory for Circumpolar Studies at Brown University in Providence, R.I. The German-born Franz Boas, considered the father of American anthropology, did field research in the Canadian Arctic in the late 1800s. During the Korean War and the cold war, the United States government had intense interest in the region.