SEA Days: Polar Express

Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days!

As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of  “Science, Exploration, and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego scientist or other local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.

Name: Till Wagner

Hometown: Pöttmes, Germany (small village in Bavaria, 1h north of Munich)

Schooling Background:

I did kindergarten through high school in Germany (with 1 year exchange to Ecuador). Then I went to the UK, where I first did my undergraduate and Master in Physics and Philosophy. After that I got a Master in Mathematics and eventually a PhD in Mathematics. I moved to San Diego 3 years ago to work at Scripps as a Postdoc Researcher.

1 word to describe a characteristic a scientist must have: Patience.

A lone scientist appears tiny, working on a remote ice floe, high in the Arctic at 80 degrees north. Together with his colleagues he was dropped off there by a small helicopter, launched from an icebreaking ship -the Arctic Sunrise, which is owned, crewed and operated by Greenpeace. Together the researchers hope to gather data about the floe, which will add to our understanding about the dynamics of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. The team consists of two sea ice specialists from Cambridge University and an architect from UCL in London who is attempting to make revolutionary three-dimensional scans of sea ice structures, particularly pressure ridges.

Dr. Wagner scanning for multi-year sea ice flow, Photo by Nick Cobbing


Why is understanding the polar ice regions important when looking at climate change?

For so many reasons! Because the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets causes sea level rise. Because the sea ice cover helps keeping the regional climate cool. Because climate change in the polar regions can affect the climate globally. Because the sea ice is an indispensable habitat for innumerable species, ranging from ice algae to polar bears to humans.

How did you decide to work on this particular issue?

Through a combination of an long-standing interest in ice and snow and some lucky encounters in graduate school. (I was struggling with my classes in quantum theory during my Master, and one of my professors was looking for a student to do a project on polar ocean physics.)

How do you predict the story of ice in the Arctic to change in the future? 

Phew – that is a very tricky question, and something that we’re constantly trying to answer.  As long as global temperatures keep rising, the sea ice in the Arctic will keep retreating, and it will likely disappear almost completely during summer at some point this century. But I do believe that if we managed to bring global temperatures back down in the future, the ice will eventually come back.


3D multi-beam scan of one sea ice floe (Fram Strait, 2012), ScanLAB Projects, London


Featured Image by Nick Cobbing.

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Scripps Institution of Oceanography UC San Diego