Academia / Education / Environment / Youth

How Baltimore high-schoolers are using polar bear whiskers to study climate change

Students from the Park School travel to the wilds of Manitoba to gather data first-hand.

Jonathan Mellinger, cofounder. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)
Students at a school in North Baltimore are behind some of the on-the-ground research that’s looking at climate change in the frozen tundra.

At the Park School, a group of more than 30 students meets every Monday night to analyze data and work on research efforts that examine how permafrost and polar bears at the edge of the Arctic Circle in Manitoba, Canada, are changing.
“Recently, we’ve been looking at symmetry of the polar bears’ faces and how they change over time,” said Anna Connors, a Park School sophomore.
By analyzing photographs of polar bear whiskers using an algorithm, they can identify the whisker prints of the bears. They can use the prints to track stress that the polar bears may be experiencing, as well as what is happening to the population.
“A lot of people think the polar bear population is declining, and this non-invasive work allows us to see if that is anecdotal, or if it can be proven by our census data or not,” said Julie Rogers, a faculty leader of the 10-year-old effort, which is called International Student-Led Arctic Monitoring and Research (ISAMR).

Two Park School students (foreground) and fellow researchers in Canada. (Courtesy photo)

Two Park School students (foreground) and fellow researchers in Canada. (Courtesy photo)

Like many after-school clubs, they also fundraise for their trips. But in this case some of the money comes from a research grant. They were recently awarded a $156,000 grant by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to keep the project going for the next three years.
Given that the research is presented at conferences, it’s already a big contribution for the students. So the fact that they travel to the Arctic Circle to collect the data first-hand makes it an even more special. The students most recently traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, in October to study the polar bears up close. (But not too close.)
Park School science teacher Julie Rogers (left) with the ISAMR group. (Courtesy photo)

Park School science teacher Julie Rogers (left) with the ISAMR group. (Courtesy photo)

In August, students travelled to a site in Churchill to study what’s happening in the ground just above the permafrost, called the Active Layer, which melts and freezes every year. Their study, which involves genetically analyzing bacteria in the soil, is designed to produce a model that can predict the size of the Active Layer based on the vegetation they see on the surface. They’re working with students from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute and Kelvin High School in Winnipeg on that effort.
“It’s unlike any other experience,” said Lexie Mantilla, another sophomore in the ISAMR group.

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