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  • Sarah Johnson

Alaska's Whittier Students Study Arctic Weather, Sea Ice, Buoys, and Boats too!

Updated: Mar 25, 2023


Whittier Community School secondary students with their decorated boats and Arctic Ocean maps

The middle and high school students in Whittier, Alaska on Prince William Sound explored Arctic geography, ocean currents, and buoys with the organization and coordination of Sheryl Sotelo. Sheryl has been a friend of the International Arctic Buoy Programme for the last few years. She is a science coordinator for the very rural schools in the Chugach School District in the bush of Alaska east of Anchorage.

The Whittier Ice Tracker deployed on the landfast ice near Point Barrow, Alaska

In late 2019 or early 2020, Sheryl had worked with these same students when they were a couple years younger teaching them about Arctic Buoys. The IABP sent them an Ice Tracker buoy, they all signed it, and it was deployed by UIC-Science staff in Utqiaġvik, Alaska.

Sheryl Sotelo (left) discusses Arctic maps with Whittier School teacher

This time, in March 2023 Sheryl invited IABP Arctic Outreach Educator, Sarah Johnson of Wild Rose Education to visit Whittier Community School while she was in route to Utqiaġvik, Alaska. Sarah facilitated an interactive engaging sea ice and buoy lesson with the students.

Students doing an Arctic polar projection map inquiry activity.

After familiarizing themselves with the geography of the Arctic Circle using polar projection maps using inquiry prompts from the Library of Congress exploring primary sources education tools, they personalized the laminated maps with markers marking their own places of interest.

Then using the a vector map of sea ice movement, students searched for patterns and connecting the vectors together began to identify the main Arctic surface currents:

  • Beaufort Gyre - a rotating current off the north coast of Canada and Alaska

  • Transpolar Drift - the main current that moves across the Arctic Ocean from Siberia to Greenland

  • Labrador Current - a strong current that flows south between Greenland and Canada

  • East Greenland Current - current that flows south along the eastern side of Greenland

The students compared their current maps to the classic Arctic Ocean currents determined by scientists and their maps were rather accurate.


Student locating the Beaufort Gyre north of Alaska.

As a final activity the students decorated wooden boats to deploy alongside a parent Arctic buoy. Using their new understanding of Arctic Ocean currents and the purpose of buoys, they made recommendations on where they would suggest deploy the buoys and boats along with the vehicle needed to make it happen: helicopter, icebreaker, large military planes, or snow machines. They also made suggestions for what the environmental sensors in the buoys could measure and observe. In addition to temperature, position (GPS), air pressure, and time, additional phenomenon and parameters could include water chemistry, wave action, ocean pollution, observing the surroundings of the buoy with a camera, wind, fish and marine animal observations, and more.

Whittier Community School decorated wooden boats

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