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TF South alum ventured to the Arctic circle to witness the effects of climate change

LANSING, Ill. (March 10, 2024) – After visiting rainforests and cloud forests of the tropics, climbing volcanoes and mountains, and swimming in oceans, a local high school science teacher’s most recent adventure has led her to the Arctic Tundra.

Biology and Environmental Science teacher Kat Podgorski’s love for nature played a major role in her decision to visit the tundra.

She developed an adventurous spirit at an early age. After graduating from TF South High School in Lansing, she left her hometown to venture out into the world. While away, she lived in New Mexico on the Zuni Indian Reservation and in Bloomington, Indiana before moving back to Lansing in 2003.

Getting to know Utqiagvik’s culture

Podgorski stayed in Utqiagvik, Alaska for seven days last year to witness first-hand how climate change is impacting the Arctic Tundra.

The “Whale Bone Arch” is the jawbone of a bowhead whale that forms an archway to the Arctic Ocean. Podgorski says the arch symbolizes the Inupiat people’s relationship and connection to the sea. (Photo provided)

“One of my goals in life is to see and experience as many things this wonderful world has to offer, and seeing a biome as unique as the tundra was something I couldn’t pass up,” Podgorski said.

Utqiagvik is the largest town within the North Slope of Alaska, with a population of less than 5,000 people. The region is primarily occupied by the Inupiat people.

She was welcomed into the home of a highly respected local family. During her visit, she learned about Inupiat culture and ate traditional Inupiat food such as caribou stew, bowhead whale prepared in several different ways, bearded seal, walrus, and kimchi.

“The knowledge they shared about their way of life was abundant,” she said. “They are both very proud of their Inupiat culture and are working hard to keep their children connected to it because they said things are becoming increasingly westernized and they don’t want to lose the knowledge of their ancestors.”

Podgorski toured the local tribal college and visited several elementary and high schools in the borough.

She also visited the Inupiat Heritage Center, a museum of Inupiat Culture and Ancestors, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility, the Naval Arctic Research Laboratory (NARL), and met the Chief Pilot at Utqiagvik’s Search and Rescue department.

“I learned so much in such a short amount of time,” she said.

The location of Utqiagvik, Alaska. (Google Maps)

Experiencing the Arctic Tundra

Of all the places Podgorski has traveled to, the Arctic tundra has captured her heart like no other place before.

Podgorski went searching for polar bear activity but was unable to sight any because they were 3.5 miles out on the sea ice near whaling crews. (Photo provided)

“I adore the Arctic. I completely fell in love with the tundra,” she said. “I can’t explain it, but it has my heart. There’s a certain beauty there that I’ve never experienced anywhere else.”

She experienced a common occurrence in Alaska known as the Midnight Sun during her visit.

Midnight Sun takes place when the sun remains above the horizon through the night. It usually occurs in the Arctic Circle during the summer months.

“It looked like it was 6 or 7 o’clock on a summer evening in Lansing, but it would be 2 a.m. on the tundra. Blackout curtains are your friend so you can sleep,” Podgorski said.

Walking on the icy sea is no easy feat as people are always on the lookout for polar bears and thin patches of ice that can cause a person’s foot to suddenly sink without warning. The locals refer to this danger phenomenon as “post-hole.”

Podgorski experienced firsthand the dangers of walking out into the icy wilderness when her leg did a post-hole.

“I had one leg sink all the way up to my hips while walking out on the sea ice. It was very startling and happened in an instant with no warning,” she said.

“Trying to pull myself out was not easy. I obviously made it since I’m back in town, but the tundra is no joke,” she continued.

Podgorski was informed by the Inupiat people that polar bears can come up on you very easily while out on the sea ice, so it is imperative to remain cautious of any movement on the tundra because they have expert camouflage. (Photo provided)

Despite her post-hole experience and the extreme coldness, Podgorski developed an affinity for the Arctic tundra.

“I absolutely loved the remoteness, the vastness, and the solitude that the Arctic Tundra provides,” she said. “It’s beyond captivating, and yet wickedly fierce and unforgiving. The cold is like nothing you can even imagine, and I went in the spring.”

The effects of climate change on the Arctic Tundra

According to Podgorski, coastal erosion along the Arctic Ocean is a major issue in the Tundra.

“With the world heating up, arctic permafrost is thawing which is leading to the destabilization of arctic soil,” she said. “You combine that with ocean waves hitting the coast and you’ve got the ingredients for arctic coastal erosion.”

She says Utqiagvik uses cargo shipping containers as barricades along the coast to prevent further erosion.

Podgorski says there is a vast expansion of frozen wilderness between the shore and open waters in the arctic tundra. (Photo provided)

Climate change is causing the ice in the sea and on the surface to melt. Podgorski talked with residents and scientists who confirmed that the warming climate “is changing the texture of the ice, its thickness, and its stability rather quickly.”

“In addition, the Arctic can be thought of as Earth’s air conditioner because it regulates our climate and circulates ocean currents,” she said. “This is one AC unit we absolutely need to keep in good operating condition.”

Meeting a variety of research scientists was the highlight of her trip. During her meeting with Dr. George Divoky, a seabird biologist who has spent the last 50 years studying Black Guillemots, she learned this species of bird has been experiencing a “dramatic population decline that is likely heading to extinction due to climate change.”

“Our warming world is having far-reaching effects,” she said.

The ice in the tundra is frozen for 3.5 miles before hitting open water in the Arctic Ocean. (Photo provided)

Podgorski says she cares a lot about the state of the planet and worries about its future. She prides herself on being an avid reader of planet-related topics including the effects of climate change and biodiversity.

“I just worry about the future of this big ole beautiful planet we all share,” she said.

“To quote Dr. Seuss from the Lorax in 1971, ‘Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not.’ This quote resonates with me even more after having been to the Arctic. Things are changing and they’re changing quickly, and they’re changing in ways we haven’t even considered,” she continued.

Although Podgorski visited the tundra as a solo traveler, she met a few other travelers whom she now considers “lifelong friends.”

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Kinise Jordan
Kinise Jordan
Kinise Jordan brings local experience and a long list of journalism skills to her work with The Lansing Journal. She understands the need for reliable, factual information in equipping people to build community. An Audio News internship with WBEZ honed her interviewing skills and her sense of timing and deadlines. A native of Calumet City, Kinise is familiar with the interplay of local government, local schools, and local businesses.

5 COMMENTS

  1. What an awesome, amazing opportunity for this young lady. We do have a beautiful planet that needs sooo much care. We must all do our share. Keep traveling, Miss Podgorski!

  2. You spelled “Arctic” as “Article” in the photo caption.
    You spelled “Arctic” as “Artic” in the story title, and twice again in the Daily News email link to this story.

    Kinise Jordan brings local experience and a long list of journalism skills to her work.

    Really?

    • Roger, thank you for pointing out those typos so that we could correct them. We take pride in providing accurate information for our community, so it pains us when we make mistakes. The error was not only Kinise’s — Josh and I also read the article before publishing, and we neglected to make those corrections before the story was released, so we share the blame, and we apologize.

      We still appreciate the local experience and journalism skills Kinise brings to The Lansing Journal, this spelling error notwithstanding. She is a valuable member of the team.

    • I think you could have expressed your “spelling” concerns via phone or email rather than publicly. Sounds a little harsh, imo.

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