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Intro to Earth Systems Science

FROM PROF. Travis Horton

Kia Orana!

Another great day in paradise for the 2016 Frontiers Abroad Earth Systems students.  The weather has gone pear-shaped as cyclone Victor moves southward across the tropical south Pacific, but the imagesParadise Inn remains buzzing with interdisciplinary science and we are safely positioned well away from Victor’s projected path.  In spite of the weather, the students are excited as they enthusiastically take on group-based biogeophysical research investigations of humpback whale satellite tracking datasets.


How animals navigate during long-distance migration is one of the most enduring mysteries of the Earth System. For more than 3000 years philosophers and scientists have pondered the problem, but robust answers remain elusive. If we figure out how humpback whales and other animals navigate, we can better protect them and their habitats. We might even be able to create whole new technologies for human navigation that provide precise spatial and temporal information free from global position satellites. Our Frontiers Abroad students actively embrace these exciting opportunities to do research that is beyond the cutting edge, yet is so deeply relevant to globally significant conservation goals and opportunities to innovate.


Each year in Rarotonga, the Frontiers Abroad Earth Systems students explore the patterns (and non-patterns) present in the magnetic and gravitational conditions experienced by humpback whales as they swim across the world’s oceans. We use humpback satellite tracking data provided by our local and international colleagues to determine the magnetic, celestial and gravitational orientational cues available in the Earth System (and beyond). Magnetic orientation is one of the most widely accepted theories of animal navigation, with celestial and gravitational orientation as likely alternatives or complements. We challenge the students to open their minds and consider space and time from the animal’s perspective rather than our own.


What natural cues are available to humpbacks to orientate by? What patterns emerge when you look at the non-random patterns in humpback movements through magnetic space? How do these patterns change when you bring ‘g-space’ (i.e. temporally and spatially dynamic gravity space) into the equation? These are just some of the questions our students consider as they systematically analyse animal movement data from whole new perspectives. Pushing the Earth Systems research envelope through biogeophysics is one of the truly unique experiences our Frontiers Abroad student embrace every year. From this experience our students develop their data management, analysis and presentation skills while broadening their own world view and space-time perspectives. Not a bad way to pass a rainy day in the tropics!


Travis W. Horton
Associate Professor