Troubled waters

4th July 2003 at 01:00
An Arctic expedition is the inspiration for innovative geography and science resources about the causes and consequences of climate change.

Hilary Wilce reports

Subathra Subramaniam, a south London science teacher, has just returned from the trip of a lifetime - but it wasn't a holiday. For two weeks she sailed north from Norway, up to the island of Spitsbergen and into the ice of the northern Atlantic to be filmed presenting simple science experiments.

The expedition, named the Cape Farewell project, aimed to show the role of these crucial northern oceans in regulating global temperatures and influencing climatic change. The footage she helped produce will be made into school resources.

Ms Subramaniam made the journey on a twin-masted 150-foot (46-metre) schooner, joined by fellow teacher Gary Doyland, head of geography at Camden School for Girls in London, and a crew of writers, painters, poets, video artists, composers, film-makers and oceanographers.

Everybody had different jobs to do. Her role included climbing a 90-foot high (27 metres) tower to find a dramatic film location.

"That was scarey, but the science was really interesting," she says. "We did lots of plankton sampling, and temperature and salinity tests, because when you get a sudden drop in temperature and less salinity, that's where the polar waters start."

The project has received pound;29,000 from the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, and its educational work has been supported by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Association for Science Education, and the Geographical Association.

Adrian Fenton, project officer at the ASE, says the association had helped devise experiments that could be done from a small boat, such as lowering a disc into the water until you can no longer see it, to measure plankton levels.

"This is an area that's often forgotten, yet it's a major influence on climate, weather and ecosystems," he says. "Now the expedition has come back, we'll be looking at what we can do with the data and the ideas from the trip."

David Lambert, chief executive of the GA, says it was the ambition of the whole project and the possibility of gathering first-hand materials and visible observations that attracted the organisation to the expedition. He says geography teachers would be interested in the sea debris that was recovered - "plastic bottles from the Caribbean floating around up there" - and would find the island of Spitsbergen fascinating, with its amazing history of coal mining.

"We feel it could give us a good case study on which to hook climate change, and to study the overarching theme of the ocean as one big system transferring energy around the world. It's an interesting way of getting kids engaged in the debate on global warming."

The research and resources will be particularly relevant to the new geography GCSE, commissioned by the QCA and being developed by OCR, to introduce issues such as sustainability, interdependence and globalisation.

Cape Farewell could provide an "exciting and authentic inquiry" for the landsape module of this course, says Mr Lambert. Teaching materials should be available from September 2004, primarily on CD, VHS and in booklet form, following trialling and evaluation with the GA and ASE. A redesigned website, modelled on the CD, will be launched in October.

The Cape Farewell project is the idea of the artist and designer David Buckland, who wanted to draw attention to this "beautiful, fragile world, and show people how you look under the surface of the water and why this section of ocean is important". He also wanted to monitor what is happening there. "What we know is that the ice is melting at an alarming rate," he says.

Mr Buckland points out that the Earth's weather is governed largely by its ocean currents, which transport heat around the globe. Warm water flowing north from the Caribbean is driven by cold water flowing south from the Arctic in vast underwater currents. Cape Farewell, on the southern tip of Greenland, is crucial in this great churning system of energy and it is from this that the project takes its name.

He says there is evidence that because the Arctic is getting warmer, the system is slowing down. This means northern Europe is being deprived of the Gulf Stream and could end up with the weather of Iceland.

It took him three years to assemble the expedition, which included in its crew Gary Hume, who was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1996. A second voyage is planned later this year.

Ms Subramaniam says the experience was amazing: "We sailed 1,020 nautical miles. We went to three research stations to talk about what they were doing. We sailed close to walruses. We went to Barentsberg, where there was a Russian coal mine, and saw the most incredible scenery. If you looked one way there would be this beautiful white wilderness, with snow-capped mountains, and if you looked the other there would be this terrible, bleak scene of coal-dust, and unhappy-looking people."

She is grateful to Riddlesdown High School in Croydon for giving her time off to go and has already poured much of her experience back into teaching.

"When I came back I spent about 15 minutes at the start of each lesson telling students about what I had been doing. They were fascinated and asked so many questions."

Ms Subramaniam says her involvement began almost by chance when she took some of her students to the Southampton Oceanography Centre to do plankton sampling and to look at how to measure ocean currents. She says they must have liked the way she threw oranges overboard to measure ocean currents as the next thing she knew she had been invited to join the Cape Farewell project and was buying wellies and warm clothing ready to sail to the Arctic.

For Ms Subramaniam, the expedition proved to be a multi-disciplinary experience all of its own. When not teaching, she is a leading expert in southern Indian classical dance, with her own dance company that performs all over the country. On board ship, when she heard the electronic music that composer Max Eastley had fashioned from the calls of bearded seals, she said: "I could do something with that." And then and there, in the confines of a tiny cabin, she improvised a dance piece for the entertainment of her fellow sailors.

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