What happens during the long, dark periods of the Arctic winter months? A lot more than we thought.
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Sierra Club

Professor Jørgen Berge always thought animals, like people, preferred to spend their winters dormant.

Berge is a marine biologist and zoologist at the Arctic University of Norway and the University Centre in Svalbard, which means he's used to those long, dark winters where the sun literally does not rise for anywhere from 23 to 176 days.

This phenomenon is known as a " polar night," which means that no part of the sun's disc is visible on the horizon, and it occurs everywhere above the 67° latitude line, including parts of Alaska, the Yukon, the Denmark Strait, and parts of Greenland and Russia.


That might be a good environment for a nasty coven of evil vampires to feast on Arctic townsfolk, but it's probably less good for non-undead organisms that thrive on sunlight and warmth.

...right?

And I thought my winter ennui was bad. GIF from "Winnie the Pooh."

As it turns out, those cold polar nights are a hotbed of activity — particularly in the Arctic Ocean.

"We have basically assumed that when it is dark, there is no primary production and there is no activity. The system is just waiting for the light to return," Berge said in a recently published article in the Journal of Cellular Biology.

But he and his fellow researchers were inspired to take a second look after a chance encounter in a Svalbard fjord in the winter of 2013.

"Above us was a starry, winter night and below us were countless blue-green 'stars' in the deep produced by bioluminescent organisms. The beauty of it was stunning, and the fact that so many organisms were producing light was a strong indication that the system was not in a resting mode," he explained.

The scenic underwater Arctic. Photo by Elisabeth Calvert/ NOAA Office of Ocean Exploration.

A team of nearly 100 scientists from seven different nations cataloged the lives of some surprisingly active Arctic animals.

Over three winters, the team led by Professor Berge embarked on underwater filming, biodiversity counts, and analyses of the stomach contents of seabirds and fish.

"Instead of an ecosystem that has entered a resting state, we document a system with high activity levels and biological interactions across most trophic levels," he said.

This activity included:

  • scallops and shellfish feeding on the floor;
  • krill and zooplankton and other tiny critters all spawning like rabbits in the springtime;
  • and auks and guillemots who resisted the urge to head south for the winter and somehow managed to stalk their deep-sea prey in absolute darkness.

A seabird diving underwater for prey. Footage by Robert Staven/NTNU via BBC.

"They are not individuals that are left behind and about to die," Berge told the BBC. "They are doing well, they find their food in the dark. Many of them had very full stomachs."

Pretty amazing, right? And all they had to do was look in the one place that no one thought to look before!


And in defense of every other scientist ever, I completely understand not wanting to leave your bed in the middle of a pitch-black Arctic winter to dive through the ice on the off chance that you might find some surprising aquatic activity. GIF from "Doctor Who."

Unless ... maybe this overactive polar night is actually something new?

For better or for worse, Berge and his team would not have been able to conduct their research if it hadn't been for the rapidly rising global temperatures.

"If you go back 10 years, the fjords would freeze up at that time of year, and this wouldn't have been possible at all," Berge said. "At the same time, there has been warming. We have less sea ice, we have more influence of warmer Atlantic water masses — and that will also have influenced the system."

Could it be that this influx of activity is actually the result of climate change and the melting polar ice caps?

Well ... maybe.

We can't actually know for sure because there's simply not enough research yet to prove the theory. As far as Berge's team members are concerned, it really could go either way.

"It's surprising to see that the rates are so high — that the level of activity is comparable to what's there in the summer. That is impressive," said Dr. Donatella Zona, an Arctic ecologist at the University of Sheffield. "But it's not very surprising that there is activity during the cold period. The main problem is that there are so few data. It's very hard to quantify, because we are relying on so few measurements."

Granted, correlation is not causation. But climate change is still a serious concern, and it would stand to reason that it might have something to do with this newly discovered aquatic Arctic dance party.


One thing is certain: Climate change is affecting everything from animals to humans to the earth itself.

Regardless of whether climate change has a direct impact (yet) on animal activity in the Arctic Ocean, I think we can all agree that the Arctic environment is a unique and wonderful place full of mystery and life that should be explored.

But things like Arctic drilling are chipping away at that ecosystem at increasingly alarming rates.

Pretty much our relationship with the planet right now. GIF via Jordi Tosas.

Let's put a stop to the arrogant actions that threaten to destroy our planet so that we might live to discover more of the wonders our world holds.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

Keep Reading Show less
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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."