Facing Rapid Change in the Arctic

Facing Rapid Change in the Arctic

Participants in Students on Ice listen to Lamont climate scientist Maureen Raymo discuss climate change at the foot of Greenland's Illissaat Icefjord. (Image: Martin Lipman/Students on Ice)

Participants in Students on Ice listen to scientist Maureen Raymo (top left) discuss climate change at the foot of Greenland’s Illissaat Icefjord. Image: Martin Lipman/Students on Ice

The Arctic, home to nearly four million people, is warming twice as fast as the lower latitudes, but the human face of this change is often hard to see. Rising sea levels, thawing permafrost and disappearing sea ice are abstract concepts for people living in the global south, as are the ways in which they alter people’s lives.

It can be challenging for researchers studying these issues to see climate change on a human scale as well. Scientists often spend more time at their desks than in the field; those who go on expeditions related to climate research may find themselves working far from the communities and people already being affected by Earth’s warming temperatures.

In late July, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and Center for Climate and Life scientist Maureen Raymo met and learned from people whose way of life is threatened by the impacts of climate change, an experience she shared with young learners from around the world. Raymo spent two weeks traveling throughout the Arctic by sea as a guest lecturer with Students on Ice. Each summer, this non-profit organization invites an international group of high school and undergraduate students on a journey through the Arctic or Antarctic. The goal is to engage participants in the environmental and social issues affecting the Polar Regions, and inspire them to become agents of change.

A map of the July 2016 Students on Ice expedition. (Image: Students on Ice)

A map of the July 2016 Students on Ice expedition. Image: Students on Ice

The 2016 expedition brought together 120 students and an expedition staff consisting of 80 scientists, educators, Inuit leaders and arts professionals to explore the islands, bays, coasts and communities of the Canadian Arctic and western coast of Greenland. The immersive experience gave participants the opportunity to study and be exposed to the pressing issues facing these locales—changes in vegetation and wildlife, decreasing sea ice, loss of traditional livelihoods—through workshops, discussions with Arctic residents, seminars and hands-on activities.

Raymo, a leading marine geologist, paleoceanographer and newly elected member of the National Academy of Sciences, participated in the daily activities and conversations, led workshops, and gave a seminar on how and why the Arctic is rapidly changing.

Geoff Green, Students on Ice founder, executive director and expedition leader, wrote that during the talk Raymo gave at the foot of Greenland’s Illissaat Icefjord, she reminded the students that the beauty they were witnessing is “nature’s way of honoring us, but we also need to honor nature and come to terms with and take action on climate change.”

The veteran climate researcher says she was “blown away” by her weeks in the Arctic. This expedition was not Raymo’s first time above the Arctic Circle, but it was her first opportunity to meet the people who live there. And she found talking with residents to be an incredible experience.

“The Arctic is an amazing part of the world at the front lines of climate change,” Raymo said. “It made a huge impact on me to be able to have conversations with people who live in the Arctic, a part of the world that’s out of sight and mind of most people, because these people are literally watching their way of life slip away.”

Raymo says that everywhere she goes, people want to know more about climate change, and they appreciate hearing about it directly from a scientist. Her experience with Students on Ice strengthened her commitment to sharing the science behind climate change and how it impacts people in circumpolar communities.

“Of all the education and outreach programs I’ve worked with over the years this was by far the most moving one I’ve taken part in,” Raymo said. “The experience made me realize that I’d like to spend more time doing this type of experiential outreach and talk to more people about climate change.”

Watch the video below to learn more about the expedition (Raymo appears at 9:30 and 10:09).