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Arctic Blast 2001

Education Curriculum & Lesson Plans

Online Classroom Dogsled Expedition


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"Weekly Topic & News" is posted here every Monday by 7 a.m. CST

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"The Weekly Topic and News" merges the expedition, educational goals, and the needs of teachers. It is the most important component of your online classroom expedition.

Start each week with an in-depth look at this page.

The topic of the week is emphasized with clearly presented, facts and information supplementing each unit of the curriculum package.

Information is also provided to help make real world connections, investigate personal values and discuss current issues.

Completing the circle, the weekly topic will also be highlighted from the Arctic Blast explorers.

Using the sights, sounds, and wilderness perspectives of the arctic facilitate meaningful and energized classes.

The Weekly Topic and News integrates the nationally accredited, K through 12, Nunavut curriculum package and the weekly reports from the expedition. This is where the adventure of collaborative learning really begins.

WEEK 3:
Northern Lights, Stars and Navigation


Imagine that you are walking on a big sandy beach.  Ocean waves slowly lap at your feet as you take each step.  Suddenly, you spot a wheel barrow up ahead, and amazingly enough, its heaping full of sand.  "Hmm... that's strange," you think.  "I don't remember ever seeing a wheel barrow here before."  You walk up to it, reach in, and grab exactly one grain of sand.

That single grain of sand represents the hundreds of thousands of stars that can be seen every night in the sky. These stars are all a part of our galaxy, the milky way. We only see stars that are in our own galaxy. Every other grain of sand in the wheel barrow represents the hundreds of thousands of other stars in other galaxies.  We don't even see these stars! Looking up at the night sky, its difficult to comprehend how many stars exists, or perhaps even more difficult, how they form.

The life of a star is a lot like the average person's - well, maybe not a lot like, but similar. They have a birth, life, and a death. All stars are born from a huge cloud of gas and dust called a nebula.  The bigger the initial nebula the bigger the 'adult' star will be (go figure).  The pull of gravity attracts more and more particles and eventually the pressure inside the cloud becomes so dense it heats up to several million degrees forming a proto star. The star is called a main sequence star when heat and pressure inside the star increases to the point where nuclear fusion occurs. Our sun is a main sequence star and it is about half way through its life cycle.  Larger nebulas will create blue giant stars and their life cycle is a little bit different.

Inside a star, the pressure is so great that atoms are compressed so much that they are turned into other elements.  After billions of years, the energy inside our sun will run out.  Our sun, will then expand to the size of a red super giant and engulf all the planets through Jupiter.  It will then explode creating a planetary nebula.  Afterwards, all that is left is a small star called a white dwarf. This is a star the size of our sun compressed into an area the size of earth.  The star is so dense that a teaspoonful of  a white dwarf star would weigh several tons.  Eventually, the star will run out of energy and all that will remain is a tiny cold star called a black dwarf.

Remember, the process that creates heat and light in a star is called fusion. Storms on the sun also create radiation which then causes northern lights or aurora.  Modern physics explains that aurora is caused when gases in the earth's upper atmosphere (ionosphere) become charged or "excited."  The interaction of charged particles within the radiation, or solar wind, within different gases create colored light. Aurora occurs most commonly near the earth's magnetic poles. Scientists have also found a connection between sun spots and northern lights.

To me, seeing all those stars or watching a spectacular display of northern lights makes it difficult to assign scientific explanation to the phenomenon.
The almost infinite amount of stars that can be seen on a clear, cold arctic night is almost incomprehensible. Watching northern lights shimmer and wave in huge green, white, yellow, and pink curtains leaves me breathless.  I know how and why I am seeing these things; however at the same time, I am completely in awe of their magnificence. Stars, aurora borealis, meteor showers, are truly amazing and could easily be considered works of art, or perhaps, poetry.

Stars serve other purposes as well.  For the Inuit, survival depended on locating game (however far away) and returning safely home. Awareness of the sun's bearing relative to a person's course provided a reference point which could be used in conjunction with landmarks. The sun also served as a time keeper before clocks were introduced. The numerous stars (remember that grain of sand) were sometimes used as guides. First and probably most easily, once a bearing was determined, any bright star was used to keep traveling the same relative direction. The second method used stars alone to determine the course of travel and involved a thorough knowledge of star and constellation positions in relation to their seasonal and daily movements. The Inuit also used wind, snowdrifts, ocean currents, animal movements, and even dreams to help them navigate through huge arctic spaces.

Finally, the night sky also provides a means for the Inuit to pass on important parts of culture.  Legends played a vital role in developing and sustaining Inuit views of the universe and reveal deeper meaning of everyday life.
Greenlandic native and explorer Knud Rasmussen stated, "Our tales are narratives of human experience and therefore they do not always tell of beautiful things.  But one cannot embellish a tale to please the hearer and at the same time keep to the truth. The tongue should be the echo of that which must be told..." Northern Lights, stars, and navigation: the Inuit viewed the night sky in simultaneously scientific (navigation) and philosophical ways.
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