Ice Ice Baby: Walker in Arctic

Eve Nguyen, Staff Writer

The Dalton Highway, a 414-mile dirt road, starts near Fairbanks, Alaska, and travels north past the Arctic Circle, ending at the Arctic Ocean. About 9.5 hours north of Fairbanks, up the Dalton Highway, is the remote Toolik Field Station. Planet Earth and Organic Chemistry teacher David Walker stayed there over the summer during his research trip to the Arctic.

For almost two months, Walker worked with a program that connects teachers with researchers to study the natural Arctic and share this research with others. The program, known as Polartrec, stands for polar teachers and researchers exploring and collaborating.
Walker collaborated with a research team of three scientists that studied how thawing permafrost in the Arctic contributes to positive feedback loops, which worsen global warming. Permafrost is carbon-heavy organic material that has been frozen in soil for over two years. Thawing permafrost causes positive feedback loops to occur, meaning that it causes a cyclic reaction that amplifies change.

“The melted permafrost becomes part of the rivers and streams in the Arctic, which is a problem because now it’s exposed to microbes and sunlight, and those two factors serve to break down that organic carbon into carbon dioxide,” Walker said. “Carbon dioxide is the fuel of global warming, so that yields more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which makes global warming worse, which yields more thawing of permafrost.”

While Walker learned a lot more about permafrost and positive feedback loops while in the Arctic, he gained more from his trip than just factual knowledge. Walker came away from the experience wanting to raise awareness for the negative impacts of climate change.

“It’s cool what I did, but I care less about that than informing people about what’s happening [with global warming],” Walker said. “In all honesty, it’s neat that people hear about me going to the arctic, but I think that the message that would be more important for people to read is one that is currently being unfortunately debted at the national level.”

Even before his trip to the Arctic, Walker had expressed the significance of his trip to his Spring semester Planet Earth students. Junior Olivia Gilbert helped Walker create an Instagram so that he could share his research and its significance with others.

“Mr. Walker told us that in order to raise awareness, he was going to start an Instagram page so that he could inform and educate his students about his trip while he was there in an easily accessible way,” Gilbert said.

Junior Vincent Kang said that in class Walker emphasized the importance of his research to his students. Kang followed the account to stay up-to-date with Walker’s travels.

“He did keep everyone up to date through live streaming on Instagram when he got the chance,” Kang said. “He would answer people’s questions along with creating cool polls about the research he was doing. Personally, I joined in for the live stream a couple of times, and they were pretty informative even though I wasn’t able to retain all of the scientific information.”

According to his past students, Walker found it important to not only learn new information but to also circulate this information to emphasize the urgency of climate change. Overall, Walker’s new research will allow him to teach in ways that convey new information on global warming and inform his students about the dangers of it.

“The main way that I participate in outreach is by teaching, so I would design lesson plans involving or incorporating the research,” Walker said. “I would be more informed myself, so I would learn more while I was up there [in the Arctic] about how these things happen, and I would be better off as a teacher because of it.”