The Polaris Project Returns Home – Notes from the Trip

“This is our biggest yet. Thirty-three people are participating in what is almost certainly the largest international expedition to the Siberian Arctic.” ~ Dr. Max Holmes, June 2012

Images compiled and slideshow created by students of The Polaris Project

Maddie LaRue, College of the Holy Cross – I cannot describe my experience with the Polaris Project as anything but amazing. This summer has been an absolutely fantastic experience that has allowed me to grow so much as a scientist, and even more as a person. Traveling through Russia with a group of thirty-three people is a feat alone, but to do the science we did on top of it is mind-blowing. Getting the opportunity to work with professionals in a field you are so incredibly interested in, in a place like Cherskiy, is a rare and invaluable experience that I feel so grateful to have been able to participate in.

I feel that after taking part in the Polaris Project, I am now much more confident in my abilities as a scientist and a researcher, as well as being able to live, work, and collaborate with a group of incredibly diverse and intelligent people. At first, I was astounded at the amount of “science talk” that occurred within the group—it was not a rarity to begin looking over data or discussing possible research topics at eleven o’clock at night. Then, after becoming totally engrossed in my own work, I realized why this was the case. Studying Arctic climate change is a way of life more than a field of study. It is so interesting, so important, and so unpredictable that it becomes a part of you. All of a sudden you cannot go anywhere without thinking about the CO2 flux or carbon composition of your surroundings—a blessing or a curse? I think blessing.

I feel so beyond lucky to be able to call myself a Polaris Project student. I was able to carry out my own research, with the help of some wonderful advisors, as well as make life-long friends in one of the most remarkable places on earth. It’s hard to wrap this up because so much more could be said about my experience with the Polaris Project, but I can definitely say, with no doubt in my mind, that this summer has been the best summer of my life.

Miles Borgen, Western Washington University – Walking on to Western Washington University’s campus five years ago, I was sure that I was going to be a business major. I did DECA in high school, was good enough at math, and figured, “Why not?” My first class as a freshman was accounting 240 at 9 in the morning, and with forced, bursting enthusiasm – I slept through the whole lecture. I dropped the class two weeks later, and for the first time in my life had no idea what to do next. Five years later, I find myself jetlagged and tired after spending a month in the Siberian arctic.

It’s hard to say exactly what happened over the past 1/20 of a century, but it came and went a blur and dropped me off where I am now. Graduated with a degree in environmental science and able to reflect on not only this trip, but the somewhat meandering journey that got me there.

Besides the logistical achievement that it must take to get 30 people to the northeast corner of Russia and back (through snow and missed connections), the breadth and amount of science that happened in our time there is pretty staggering. As some groups tirelessly collected firewood, there were people braving the weather on inflatable boats mapping lakes. While some people ignited soils determining carbon, others analyzed samples using equipment that, by all means, is shocking to see in such a remote place. In (very limited) retrospect, the whole undertaking seems wildly ambitious, but there we were – able to help the project achieve what it set out to do while making it home in one piece (at least physically).

My journey to the Polaris Project went through Washington, Massachusetts, and Bermuda – conducting various research projects while trying to earn a degree. I got on a plane to Russia a little burnt out looking back at the hours of homework, labwork, and general tedium, but on my plane ride home, I couldn’t help but think about what I could do next, where I could do it, and how I could manage. I knew that this month of research would either confirm that I was, indeed, ready for a break, or remind me why I dropped accounting in the first place. I feel pretty reenergized and I feel very fortunate to have been given the opportunity to spend my summer this way.

In the grand scheme of things, a month is hardly a blip of time, but something about the Polaris Project allows those four weeks to seem like 12, all while flying by in the span of one endless day. There was something kind of poetic about seeing night time for the first time as we woke up in Moscow to fly home. Having graduated in March, I kind of viewed this summer as a victory lap or a culmination of my undergraduate career. And while I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pump my fists once or twice realizing where I was, I’d be naive to think that this summer didn’t help me start something new.

Dylan Broderick, Clark University – After participating in Polaris for the last 2 years, I’ve found that when I return home I can’t really give an accurate description of my experience to my family and friends. I can show them pictures, explain my project, and recount stories or notable days, but I can’t recreate the everyday banter between students and PIs, the smell of deet and permafrost cores, the way the light looks at 1 in the morning, or the excitement of mapping the bathymetry of a lake for the first time. Some of these things seem insignificant at the time, but looking back I realize that they are what make this opportunity unique. While in Cherskiy I knew I was experiencing things that I would never forget, but even months after returning I still couldn’t stop thinking about them – to me, this signifies something truly incomparable, extraordinary, and worthwhile.

The Polaris Project is intense and enriching in many dimensions: academically, through the enthusiasm of the PIs and the students to teach and learn from each other; scientifically, through the desire the learn about and communicate the climatic changes going on the Arctic; professionally, by providing field experience to undergrads in a remote region of Siberia; and socially, by attracting students with similar interests and enthusiasm, thereby creating a network that extends and continues after each field season. I will always be impressed by and thankful for the students, scientists, PIs, and support system that were all involved in the success of Polaris.

Dr. Max Holmes, WHRC – There are many easier things to do in life than to lead a group of 33 people to the Siberian Arctic, so why do I do this? I’ve been asking myself that question this morning, intertwined with thoughts about missing my 6 year old son and 3 year old daughter, and facing the prospect of missing my wife’s 40th birthday on July 27. Fortunately, there is an easy answer: This is the most important thing I can imagine doing. The Arctic is at the epicenter of global climate change, and how the Arctic responds to warming will have a huge influence on Earth’s climate system (and therefore human society) over the coming years and decades. The permafrost of the Arctic contains vast quantities of ancient organic matter, and nowhere is it more concentrated or more vulnerable than in the region I’m looking at now through the window of the Barge. Though our group of 33 is huge in some senses (such as when thinking about re-booking flights across 16 time zones…), it is tiny when compared to the magnitude of challenges facing scientists – and society – as we grapple with trying to understand the Arctic. So, I’ll keep hoping that our flight departs as scheduled this afternoon, but if not, I – and the larger group – will rally and use our extra time here to pry a few more secrets from this remarkable, challenging, critical, and beautiful environment.

Dr. Michael Coe, WHRC – I’ve been working as a scientist for over 20 years now but this is my first trip above the Arctic Circle. Since my research almost always takes place in the rainforests of the Amazon River system I’m fairly sure that the experience here is as thrilling and new to me as it is to the students I am traveling with. I’ve had a great time getting to know this environment and several aspects really stand out in comparison to the Amazon. First, only the top 8 inches or so of soil is thawed in the summer and somehow large trees manage to grow and thrive. In the Amazon trees send roots at least 30 feet into the soil. Second, in the Amazon there are more than 200 species of woody plants in any given acre of land whereas in Cherskiy there are 4. The landscape is covered in vegetation but has really low diversity. And finally, even in July one needs more than a couple T-shirts up here – it snowed quite a lot and I had to borrow clothes from my colleagues to stay warm.

*Home page image courtesy of student Miles Borgen.

The Polaris Project expedition is a month-long component of the Woods Hole Research Center’s work in the Arctic.

For more information about the Polaris Project and related work please visit:

Read student and faculty blogs: