Category Archives: research

Reindeer and Climate Change

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During my run north along the Arctic Trail in August, I will pass through substantial sections of Norway, Sweden, and Finland en route to Kautokeino from Sulitjelma.

The trail’s 500 miles, which traverses much ofSápmi, the homeland of the Sami, can be divided according to countries, border crossings, biomes, topography, habitations, and, maybe most interesting, by reindeer herding districts. The route I’m following passes through 25 separate named herding districts, each of which supports the structure of a complex and dynamic cultural/ecological Sami tradition of herding semi-domesticated reindeer.

As I’ve been tracing the Arctic Trail on its route through much of  the different districts in Norway, Sweden, and Finland (the full list is at the end of this post), I have been falling in love with the names — the language delineating placenames, relationships, and a complex system of ecologies, cultural customs, tradition, regulation, and contemporary political boundaries.

The principal goals of the multi-year Climate Run project are to

(1) bear witness to changing ecologies and cultures in the face of a rapidly changing climate

(2) cultivate conversation and build community around climate resilience

(3) change the narrative about climate change from one of resistance to one of resilience.

One way that I plan to engage in these conversations is by understanding the impact of climate change on reindeer herds across Sápmi as well as Sami adaptations to traditional practices made necessary by ecological change. Reindeer herding has been and continues to be an essential component of Sami identity, economy, and cultural tradition. By some accounts, up to 40% of all of Norway’s land is open to reindeer herding, and there are an estimated 700,000 reindeer across three northern Scandinavian countries. With a Sami population of just over 58,000, that’s more than 10 reindeer per individual!

Sami herders have already noticed significant changes in foraging patterns and the predictability of seasonal changes, which has led to an actual decrease in individual reindeer size — for example an average 12% weight loss over the past 16 years among reindeer in Svalbard.

Heikki Hirvasvuopio describes the problem on the mainland this way:

During autumn times, the weather fluctuates so much, there is rain and mild weather.This ruins the lichen access for the reindeer. In some years this has caused massive loss of reindeers. It is very simple – when the bottom layer freezes, reindeer cannot access the lichen. This is extremely different from the previous years. This is one of the reasons why there is less lichen. The reindeer has to claw to force the lichen out and the whole plant comes complete with roots. It takes . . . extremely long for a lichen to regenerate when you remove the roots of the lichen.

As we move into a political era of renewed climate change skepticism, and, as of this writing, the U.S.’s continuing role in the 2016 Paris Climate Agreement is doubtful, it’s ever more important to demonstrate the real tangible impacts of a changing climate on not only global systems but on something as simple — yet devastating — as a reindeer’s ability to reach its food source — and the far-reaching impact this regional issue can have.

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Here’s a listing of the twenty-five herding districts along the Arctic Trail, listed from South to North through Norway, Sweden, and Finland.

Sjonkfjell
Svaipa
Semisjaur-Njarg
Luokta Måvas
Tuorpon
Hellemo
Frostisen
Skjomen
Sirkas
Sörkaitum
Baste
Girjas
Laevaas
Gabna
Altevatn
Dividalen
Tamok/Rosta
Talma
Saarivuoma
Lainiovuoma
Könkämä
Käsivarsi
Cohkolat ja Biertavárri
Fávrrosorda
Guovdageainnu cakcaorohat

Facts and science in a complicated world

Amid the political, social, and emotional tumult across our national stage this year, I have treasured my time training as a time to step outside the web of tweets, truths, media blackouts, funding cuts, posturing, and ‘alternative facts.’

Maybe to help me find some solid footing, during my hours (and hours) running, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about glaciers.

In particular, I have become preoccupied with glacial responses to climate change,  which is the rest of this post is all about. I hope you read on, but if you don’t (if glaciers <gasp> aren’t your thing), at least take away this:

Few things in this world are truly simple, and most are deserving of close attention to nuance.

The world is complicated.

Facts are essential.

Embrace complexity.

Climate change is one of those things. We can track the changing surface temperatures, ocean salinity, water temperature, glacial melt, polar sea ice extent, sea level, shoreline erosion, permafrost melt, and so on — all of which are small parts of a hugely complex system.

And all of which have, for many years now, painted a clear and compelling picture of a warming climate.

Even as we begin to understand the complexity of the climatic system, though, we can often find puzzling contradictions, like surging glaciers, which appear to store energy for decades in a period of quiescence and then release a burst of movement so quick it can often be thousands of times faster than the glacier’s typical speed.

Only about 1% of all the world’s glaciers fall into the category of surging glaciers, and they appear in one of the greatest concentrations in the Svalbard archipelago 500 miles north of Norway. One glacial system in particular, Nathorstbreen, surged forward more than 15 km over the course of 4 years — sometimes moving as fast as 25 meters per day (2500 times faster than normal).

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A satellite view of the Nathorstbreen surge from ‘Surge dynamics in the Nathorstbreen glacier system, Svalbard’ by M. Sund, et al.

Glaciologist Heidi Sevestre, an expert on surging glaciers around the world, admits,

Today in a period of global glacier recession, glaciers surge in many parts of the world. Surging glaciers complicate the investigation of glacier response to climate variability.

Dramatic as it is, a surge is simply another data point in a massively complicated global system. A glacial surge does not mean that these glaciers are growing. Their volume is still dramatically decreasing. Between June and August 2015, in Svalbard alone, glaciers lost four and half million metric tons of meltwater every hour.

That’s nearly impossible to imagine, but it matters.

This is where beliefs and facts based on empirical observation meet — and where we need to work hard to be sure that far-reaching decisions are based on evidence and are not merely reactionary.

Silencing the sharing of data, as complex or unimaginable as that data may be, is anathema to building resilience, community, or sound decision making.

svalbard-glacier

The Nathorstbreen Glacial System image from TopoSvalbard / NorskPolarinstitutt

 

We started a new semester yesterday, and in an effort to help students explore their new surroundings here in Vermont, we looked at, among other things, Terry Tempest Williams’ 2004 essay, Ground Truthing, in which she writes about the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska:

The power of nature is the power of a life in association. Nothing stands alone. On my haunches, I see a sunburst lichen attached to limestone; algae and fungi are working together to break down each rock into soil. I cannot help but recognize a radical form of democracy at play. each organism is rooted in its own biological niche, drawing power from its relationship to other organisms. An equality of being contributes to an ecological state of health and succession.

A radical form of democracy begins with us, the people, making clear that facts, science, and transparency are essential — whether for building resilient communities or making intelligent decisions about our relationship with the natural world.

Adventure Science!

I am very excited to be working with Adventure Scientists to continue providing samples for their ongoing global microplastics project to create a database of microplastics proliferation throughout the world’s marine and freshwater environments. During my time in Scandinavia next summer, I hope to sample freshwater sites along the Nordkalottleden to send back to the U.S. for analysis.

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When I sampled marine water during the 2015 Iceland Run (which you can read about on the ASC site), 4 of the 5 samples I submitted contained between 4 and 10 individual pieces of plastic each — even in the seemingly pristine waters of the southern Arctic Ocean!

By sampling fresh water in Norway, Sweden, and Finland in 2017, I will add to a growing microplastics database and help scientists determine whether the backcountry of Scandinavia will also indicate the rapid increase of microplastics in the environments around the world.

Everyday Ecology

I am reading two things at the moment: Donella Meadows’ “Dancing with Systems” and Pope Francis’ recent Encyclical Letter, “On Care For Our Common Home.” Disparate as these texts are—the first a reflection on decades of work with ecological systems by perhaps our leading evangelist of systems thinking, published in the year of her death, 2001–and the second, a provocation to more than simply the 1 billion followers of Roman Catholicism to think, discuss, and act upon issues of climate change in the context of our social and economic structures, choices, and philosophies.

I read “On Care For Our Common Home” on the urging of my friend, writer and activist John Elder, who wrote an Op Ed for the Rutland Herald about the recently released encyclical. In reading the whole of the papal letter, I had hoped to find a passage or two that epitomized the ecological sentiment—something I could draw from to write a pithy post related to Climate Resilience. Instead, what I found was paragraph after paragraph of rich, balanced, and nuanced engagement of many dimensions of climate change.

Here are a few examples:

I urgently appeal . . . for a new dialogue about how we are shaping the future of our planet. We need a conversation which includes everyone, since the environmental challenge we are undergoing, and its human roots, concern and affect us all. . . . We require a new and universal solidarity.   [14]

The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all. At the global level, it is a complex system linked to many of the essential conditions for human life. [23]

Climate change is a global problem with grave implications: environmental, social, economic, political and for the distribution of goods. It represents one of the principal challenges facing humanity in our day. [25]

A delicate balance has to be maintained when speaking about these places [of great biodiversity—like tropical forests], for we cannot overlook the huge global economic interests which, under the guise of protecting them, can undermine the sovereignty of individual nations. [38]

Given the complexity of the ecological crisis and its multiple causes, we need to realize that the solutions will not emerge from just one way of interpreting and transforming reality. [63]

The natural environment is a collective good, the patrimony of all humanity and the responsibility of everyone. If we make something our own, it is only to administer it for the good of all. If we do not, we burden our consciences with the weight of having denied the existence of others. [95]

There can be no renewal of our relationship with nature without a renewal of humanity itself. There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes”.[118]

Culture is more than what we have inherited from the past; it is also, and above all, a living, dynamic and participatory present reality, which cannot be excluded as we rethink the relationship between human beings and the environment. [143]

It is enough to recognize that our body itself establishes us in a direct relationship with the environment and with other living beings. . . .Learning to accept our body, to care for it and to respect its fullest meaning, is an essential element of any genuine human ecology. [155]

As Pope Francis crafts an argument for an “integral ecology,” he outlines many concepts that are central tenets in the global conversation about climate change: the relationship between cultural and ecological systems, the role of politics and economy as a driving force for cultural and ecological change, the connection between our very bodies and the world we live in.

In short, the June 2015 encyclical proposes a model of thinking about our world that is based on systems, on ecology, and on intentional relationships among human beings and between humans and the world.

Donella Meadows’ short piece, “Dancing with Systems,” is a similarly accessible entree to thinking about systems. In her introduction, Meadows writes,

We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them! I already knew that, in a way before I began to study systems. I had learned about dancing with great powers from whitewater kayaking, from gardening, from playing music, from skiing. All those endeavors require one to stay wide-awake, pay close attention, participate flat out, and respond to feedback.

It had never occurred to me that those same requirements might apply to intellectual work, to management, to government, to getting along with people. But there it was, the message emerging from every computer model we made. Living successfully in a world of systems requires more of us than our ability to calculate. It requires our full humanity–our rationality, our ability to sort out truth from falsehood, our intuition, our compassion, our vision, and our morality.

There is a striking resonance here between these two different texts. On one level, it’s heartening that the once more marginal language of ecology and systems has made its way onto the global stage in such a significant way. On another, I am buoyed that we, globally, are thinking (or at least being asked to think) about how we related to and how we treat one another, ourselves, and the world we are both a part of and that is a part of us.

What better way forward for building a community of resilience?

 

Dispatches from Iceland #1: We are an expression of forces

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We’ve finally arrived in Iceland and settled into an Airbnb apartment in Seltjarnarnes, a few minutes from the city center. It already seems as though we’ve been gone from Vermont for many weeks, although it’s only been just nine days of travel, training, work, and food (!) in Norway, Denmark, and Sweden.

A tour of Scandinavia to be sure!

While at the Arctic Encounters conference in Copenhagen last week, I very much appreciated the hospitality of the conference hosts and the many new friends and colleagues both I and Orion made over the three days. In conversations about the Climate Run project, I kept returning an idea raised for me in Matthew Tiessen’s writing about affect and emotion:

“Humans can be thought of not as individuals, actors, subjects, or creators, but as articulations and expressions of their environments. Each of us is a site-in-process, a crossing, where forces come to play. . . . We are an expression of forces.

If we are intentional about the ways that those forces are expressed through our interactions with/in the world, then I think we can begin to realize not only our own potential, but our potential to interact proactively with the world around us.

In order to fully realize and maximize human performance — the goal of my friends at O2X — we need to realize that a runner’s body is more than just itself. We are each very much entangled in a web of complex systems — social, cultural, and ecological.

The world is not merely a space through which we run; it’s a system that includes the body in a complex ecology. A critical part of what I’m learning–and what I hope to share–through the Climate Run experience is the many ways we can contribute to building a consciously inclusive ecology.

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Why Climate Change Matters in Iceland

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The Icelandic landscape has long held a fascination for me–from my first visit to Reykjavik in the 1970s when I was a young boy through the field course I taught there in 2007. It is a place where the land is most often laid bare, and geologic history is written (and volcanically rewritten) on even the most weatherbeaten and exposed summits, in the seasonal rise and fall of glacial rivers, and in the ice-scoured earth left by receding glaciers.

To prepare for Climate Run by learning more about specific effects of climate change in Iceland, I’ve been reading quite a bit–including the groundbreaking article, Climate‐driven vertical acceleration of Icelandic crust measured by continuous GPS geodesy by Kathleen Compton, Richard A Bennett, and Sigrún Hreinsdóttir.

The study, which assesses many years of precise GPS data from 27 different sites in Iceland, is the first one to show that the earth’s surface is rising as a direct result of glacial melting due to climate change.

reboundScientists have been able to measure the rise of the earth’s crust as icecaps and glaciers melt and unburden the ground, effectively allowing it relax. The weight of ice that melts each year in Iceland–an estimated 11 billion tons–is actually causing the earth’s surface to rebound.

In Iceland, not only is the earth’s surface rising–in what is often called post-glacial rebound or uplift–but in some places it is rising at a rate of more than one inch each year.

As Compton et al. write in the conclusion to their study, this movement has the potential to increase the frequency and the severity of volcanic activity in the region and to affect how we measure the movement of tectonic plates. Earlier today, Compton shared with me in an email that

One of the things that’s cool about this research is that it shows that all Earth processes are connected. Sometimes I think we get stuck thinking that climate change is an atmosphere phenomenon. But we know that many Earth processes are affected. The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic. Ice is melting, and a warmer world will physically change the shape of our planet.

As I learn more about the complexities of global climate systems, it becomes ever more clear that everythingdown to the very ground we stand uponis so thoroughly entangled with everything we do in the world, there’s no way we can think of ourselves and our actions as anything but an inherent and consequential part of this one world we share.

Microplastics — Bigger than you think!

ASC_logoI’m excited to announce that as part of the run across Iceland this June, I will be collecting more than a dozen 1-liter samples of both seawater and upstream river water for a global microplastics study through the terrific folks at Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation. The research study, led by marine research scientists Abby Barrows, incorporates data from samples sent in by adventurers around the world.

What are microplastics & why study them?

Primary microplastics are the tiny plastic beads — microbeads — used in cosmetics like exfoliants and in industrial applications such as sand blasting.

Secondary microplastics come from the degradation of larger pieces of plastic that make their way into the ocean.

Worldwide production of plastics has increased 9% annually since 1950 to more than 230 million tons annually today.

Disposable plastic goods account for 10% of all global landfill waste.

An estimated 10% of this plastic waste ends up in our oceans.

Microplastics are now found in nearly all marine habitats–and often in shocking quantities:

According to one study over 2004 and 2005, just two rivers in Los Angeles CA contributed 2 billion microplastic particles to the ocean over a 3 day period.

In the Pacific Ocean alone, fish ingest an estimated 12,000-24,000 tons of plastic each year.

During the scouting, preparation, and with the help of support team members, I will be able to take samples from the south and north coasts of Iceland as well as along  rivers running from the interior highlands into both the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans.

I’m curious to see what we’ll find.

To learn more about microplastics and about ASC, check out the following:

Adventurers and Scientists for Conservation

“Microplastics as contaminants in the marine environment