Exhibition introduces visitors to the wonder of the arctic

SCIENCE by Paul Dechene

photo by Darrol Hofmeister


The centrepiece of the Saskatchewan Science Centre’s new touring exhibit Arctic Voices is a stuffed, adult polar bear. The day I showed up to check the exhibit out, there were a couple of elementary school groups there as well so the gallery was packed with excited children.

As I was standing there looking at that white-furred apex predator — posed rearing up on its hind legs, claws aloft, teeth bared — I couldn’t help but think, “You could fit four or five of these kids in that thing’s belly without too much trouble.”

The children, meanwhile, seemed untroubled by such thoughts. They were so busy tearing around the exhibit that they were almost oblivious to the taxidermied beast in their midst. Instead, they were more interested in the arctic hare jump.

Arctic Voices is a co-production of Science North and the Canadian Museum of Nature that endeavours to engage Canadians with the Great White North — its flora and fauna, geology and climate, and the different strategies that plants and animals have evolved over many millions of years to survive in such a hostile land.

The arctic hare jump challenges visitors to test their leaping skills against that of an arctic hare. It’s a pretty simple idea, but it’s proven to be hugely popular. Not only were the school groups lining up to try it out the day I was there, adults also like to give it a shot, says Ryan Holota, director of business development and visitor services at the Science Centre.

“That’s a piece of the exhibit that we’ve adapted. We take a replica out on the road with us when we go to farmers’ markets and [and other events] because it’s very competitive. Even among the staff, if we’re in there walking through or whatever, we’ll see people going, ‘How far can you go?’ It’s a lot of fun for us. I find that really entertaining.”

Aside from the arctic hare jump, there are tunnels for visitors young and not-so-young to crawl through, fox dens to hide out in, and a companion challenge to the arctic hare jump: the arctic fox jump. There are also two computer quizzes where people can compete to determine whose mastery of arctic trivia is supreme.

Of course, as with all Science Centre exhibits, the fun grows out of the science. And Holota says that the goal of Arctic Voices is to get people to explore how this northern biome is interlinked with our own environment.

“We often think of the arctic as being something that is so far away,” he says. “It’s a nebulous concept. We don’t understand, first of all, how close it is to us. We are in Canada, after all. And also, how much the things that happen there have an impact on our lives here in Regina.

“It talks about climate change, for example. The effects, I think, are more evident in the arctic. It’s very obvious what’s happening there. And so [Arctic Voices] is saying, ‘Hey look, this is a real thing that’s happening, and we need to be aware of it. We should probably think about making changes to reduce the impact going forward.’”

The evidence which Holota alludes to indeed indicates that something awful is happening to our climate. And sadly, Canada’s north is ground zero for the worst impacts of global warming.

Polar sea ice is on an undeniable downward trend — both in surface area and depth. The average surface temperatures in the arctic are rising twice as fast as elsewhere. And these changes combine to make a delicate ecosystem even more challenging for the plants and animals that live there.

Meanwhile, globally, 2014 was the warmest year on record, and 2015 is already looking to beat that worrisome mark. As for a supposed global warming hiatus that science-deniers have been arguing justifies stalling action on reducing greenhouse gas emissions, a recent study out of NOAA [the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] demonstrates how there never was any slowdown in global warming at all.

Taken together, these facts are more terrifying than a stuffed polar bear. But faced with such a dire picture of how we are so dramatically altering the global climate, you can see why learning about the science of the arctic is more important now than it’s ever been.

Making Award-Winning Science

In October, the Saskatchewan Science Centre will be bringing back Ignite!, a festival of engineering and invention, craft and creativity, that explores the intersection of art and science. It’s a showcase for all kinds of tinkering, making, hacking, and do-it-yourselfing.

“We wanted people that were doing cool things to have a place to show them off. So we called it a festival for the inspired, creative and innovative,” says the Science Centre’s Ryan Holota in describing last fall’s event.

In May, the Canadian Association of Science Centres gave the Saskatchewan centre’s 2014 Ignite! festival a Best Program award at the annual Cascades Award show.

Ignite! 2015 will be held Oct. 9-10. /Paul Dechene