Ever wonder what scientists do in the dark? Then don't miss Glasgow Science Centre's UK premiere of a new documentary that explores how researchers monitor climate change in the bleak polar seas – and how it is affecting marine life. By Colin Cardwell


LOOKING out across an expanse of black sea in the chill darkness of winter, the myriad twinkling lights of marine traffic inspire a sense of a reassurance: ships taking people where they need to be, bringing us the essentials and small luxuries of life.

What happens then when the lights go out on board a ship in the polar darkness of the high Arctic and you’re asked to set off into the night in a small support vessel with polar bear prowling the ice floes?

This apparently alarming prospect is the premise of Michael O Snyder’s arresting film, Into the Dark, which will have its UK premiere during Curious About Our Planet, Glasgow Science Centre’s first digital science festival which will run from February 18-20 as part of the GSC’s Our World, Our Impact programme.

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It aims to celebrate the wonders of our planet and helps get to grip with the facts on climate change in the run-up to COP26 (Conference of Parties) that is coming to Glasgow in November this year. Rising to the challenge of pandemic lockdown restrictions, the festival is a digital version of Curiosity Live, an existing science engagement event held at Glasgow Science Centre (GSC) in recent years which showcases the latest research and innovation across Scotland and the UK.

Snyder is a US photographer, filmmaker, journalist and environmental scientist who took an MSc in Environmental Sustainability at the University of Edinburgh and through his production company, Interdependent Pictures, has directed films in the Arctic, the Amazon, the Himalayas and East Africa.

 In 2019 he joined a team of Norwegian and UK researchers carrying out research on the effect of light on marine life up to 200 metres (656ft) down in the Barents Sea in the Arctic Ocean, light which affects their behaviour patterns including hunting, mating and migrating to find food.

Crucially, climate change and thinner ice will result in more light penetrating the waters of the Arctic with warmer warmers pushing some fish species further north, while increasing ship traffic will also cast more light on the deep, putting food chains at risk. Among the team were researchers from the Scottish Association for Marine Science (SAMS) in Oban, Scotland’s leading marine science organisation which used a highly sensitive light sensor and echo sounders they had developed to detect the presence of organisms, from minute zooplankton to fish.

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The expedition was a joint venture aboard the R/V Helmer Hanssen between a long-standing research programme on the Arctic Polar Night led by Prof Jørgen Berge at UiT, The Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø and a programme funded through the UK Natural Environment Research Council called Arctic PRIZE, with participation from other members of PRIZE from the University of Edinburgh and Dr David McKee (featured in the film), a marine optics specialist from the University of Strathclyde.

“We also provided the robotic instruments that move autonomously through the water, independent of the ship, to collect data over a much larger are, led by the Scottish Marine Robotics Facility at SAMS,” explains oceanographer Prof Finlo Cottier.

The experience for him was “extraordinary” when the lights on the ship were turned off. “Ask any seafarer and they’ll tell you that when the lights go off on a ship it generally means there is a major problem. It gives a heightened sense of isolation and vulnerability. It also gives chance for the other senses to take over – hearing particularly.”

 He adds that one of the one of the main findings was that operating in total darkness was useful because: “Biological surveys in the dark from illuminated ships may introduce biases on biological sampling, bioacoustic surveys, and possibly stock assessments of commercial and non-commercial species.”

Dr Kim Last, of the SAMS team, adds: “There are many gaps in our knowledge regarding Polar night light pollution. Yet we do know that with the rapid and relentless melting of the sea-ice due to climate change and the opening of the Arctic to more shipping and resource exploitation, it is inevitable that more light will come into this dark ocean. As with many understudied and unexplored habitats on earth, we need to understand what changes we are imposing, if we are to protect the environment for future generations.”

Filming the project was no pleasure cruise for Snyder, who grew up on 12 acres of woods in Appalachia and spent much of his early adulthood exploring the remote corners of the planet. In one dramatic scene, in which the Helmer Hanssen pitches and rolls violently in 40ft waves, the camera focuses on one of the crew who is miserably seasick.

“That’s me – that’s my one cameo in the film,” he laughs from his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. “I was in bad shape – and that was the reality for a lot of people on that ship. Thankfully I can report that there is such a thing as sea legs.”

On finding them, he was able to take advantage of advanced cameras supplied by Sony and GoPro. “They had just launched these cameras in 2018 with new sensors that are very, very light sensitive so they were eager to see their gear field-tested in the most extreme environment possible,” he says.

“I was sceptical about getting much at all, but with the cameras’ sensors it was like seeing in the dark. The technology is fascinating, and it was interesting to see how it paralleled the technology that that the scientists were using.”

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Snyder explains his process: “Usually I want to do two things with a film: to lay out the issue in the first half and then really look at what can be done about it in the second half of the film, and do that from a storytelling perspective. However, this film wasn’t really about finding solutions. It focused on the lengths that people go to in a bid to conduct science – and what sort of science like this looks like on an extreme expedition.”

Snyder had already visited GSC when studying in Edinburgh: “I was able to make this great connection with them through SAMS and thought it was the perfect place to be able to stream Into the Dark in the UK for the first time,” he says.

“When I make films my goal is to get them into the hands of organisations that share my values, so GSC and Curious About Our Planet is an excellent opportunity to engage a broader audience about climate change and its impacts on the planet. And it’s even better to do it in the location where COP26 is taking place and empower and inspire young people to create the world that they want to see.”

Curious About Our Planet will go live on January 29 for people to sign up for updates, with the full line up being revealed on February 8. Visit online at curiousabout.glasgowsciencecentre.org



Perfect climate for inspirational Curious About Our Planet digital festival

THERE is nothing more inspirational for young people than to meet those doing great things with science and technology, says Dr Stephen Breslin, chief executive of Glasgow Science Centre (GSC).

 “We’ve run physical events in the past, bringing in scientists and engineers among the partners we work with together with these young people, but obviously that wasn’t an option this year, so we’ve taken it online to reach even more young people and put on even more dynamic and exciting content,” he says.

The festival is a digital version of Curiosity Live, a science engagement event held at GSC where schools, communities and families could directly engage with current scientific research, inspiring them to get involved. In turn, it’s part of Our World Our Impact, a programme for climate change funded by the Scottish Government.

The Herald: GSC's chief executive Stephen Breslin believes the festival will open up new horizons for curious young people GSC's chief executive Stephen Breslin believes the festival will open up new horizons for curious young people

“Young people can interact with live sessions during the three days of the festival and in advance we’re curating lots of exciting content around some of the big climate change issues.

“The full programme will be revealed when the site goes live on February 8, building up to the event on February 18-20 when our partners will interact directly with those watching.” This will be a much wider audience, says Dr Breslin.

“In the past that was mostly schoolchildren in Glasgow and the west of Scotland but the digital platform lets us reach way beyond that.

“Most of the curated content will remain, leaving a legacy resource for anyone to access and use, so it’s a model we’re quite excited about.”

Curious About Our Planet has support from the Inspiring Science Fund provided by Wellcome, UKRI and BEIS with additional support from the Scottish Government and aims to have something for everybody: from going behind the scenes at Edinburgh Zoo, discovering Citizen Science projects, enjoying an art exhibition, viewing the UK premiere of Into the Dark and teaching (adults) how to make sustainable cocktails, with educational resources for schools on climate change.

Dr Breslin adds that in future GSC is planning to organise three or four of these events a year based around some of the big themes explored in the Science Centre and this programme is set to continue and grow after the Covid pandemic.

“When we’re allowed to welcome visitors back we’ll continue all the work we’ve done on the digital platform which is also a great platform for GSC’s partners, allowing them to talk about their research, to help people understand what they do, why they do it and what its impact is.”

The Centre has already been “overwhelmed” by the success of GSC at Home, which offered free online science content across social media channels and Learning Lab, a 10-week digital module of activity, with 2800 children currently engaged.

Dr Breslin concludes: “My hope is to build momentum around Curious About our Planet. Attracting partners from far and wide with digital offerings means we’re not geographically constrained – and it will open up horizons still further for young people.”