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ESS 38N: The Worst Journey in the World: The Science, Literature, and History of Polar Exploration

Cross listed: EARTHSYS 38N, GEOLSCI 38N
The Famous Lemaire Channel by SF Brit via Flickr.

General Education Requirements

Not currently certified for a requirement. Courses are typically considered for Ways certification a quarter in advance.

Course Description

This class is for Stanford students in their 1st quarter. I am a practicing polar scientist and I’ve been reading this genre of literature for nearly 45 years. I’ve made over 40 trips to the Polar Regions and have taught several classes in Antarctica, spanning science, policy, and law. I’d like us to approach this class not as an armchair adventure reading group but rather with some specific goals in mind. We’ll read literature that illustrates the range of motivations that set people off on long, difficult, and often life-threatening expeditions. We’ll also read papers that demonstrate how difficult it was to acquire even the most basic nuggets of scientific and geographic knowledge in the Polar Regions. Two of the books we will read cover the basics of polar meteorology and glaciology, and you will learn the latest science on Antarctica’s melting ice as well as how we study it. We’ll consider questions such as: How much is a human life worth against the backdrop of potential economic, geographic, and scientific gains? How has the method of acquiring new knowledge changed since the end of the “Heroic Age” of polar discovery? How does the Antarctic Treaty System work to foster deep international collaborations?

The class consists of mixed lectures and discussion/presentation sessions. Grading will be based on class participation and four essays (one may be a poem) to be completed during the quarter. After an initial set of readings that I have selected for you, we’ll decide as a group about other books to read. We may choose to branch off into several different directions with working groups pursuing different topics. Four or five times during the course I will define questions for you and ask you to break up into smaller groups for discussion. We’ll get back together to compare notes. We’ll also participate in one role-playing exercise designed to teach you about leadership skills and pitfalls under extreme conditions of duress.

If enough snowfall has occurred by early December, we’ll have an optional camping trip. The camping trip will take us into the snow, at high elevation in the Sierra Nevada Mountains near Lake Tahoe. There may be some dog sledding but there will certainly be cross-country skiing, snow-camping, and wilderness survival training. The point of this trip is to give you some appreciation of the conditions that polar explorers faced, and also to learn a bit about the equipment that was appropriate (or not) for their journeys.

Watch Dog Sledding and Snowcraft from the Stanford Polar Class Field Trip

Meet the Instructor: Rob Dunbar

Rob Dunbar

Robert Dunbar joined the Stanford faculty in 1997 after teaching for 16 years at Rice, where he also served as an undergraduate college master. He received his Ph.D. in oceanography from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego in 1981. He currently works on research projects in East Africa, Bolivia, Galapagos, and Antarctica. Common themes in his work include air-sea gas exchange, history of ocean-atmosphere circulation, and response of marine ecosystems to climate variability. He typically employs several Stanford undergraduates in his laboratory and encourages undergraduate participation in his field programs.