Tag Archives: arctic

In Search of Polar Perspectives

Perspective changes everything. Seeing things from a new angle, in a new context, can lead to some incredible realizations; just ask the astronauts who look down at our planet from orbit, seeing everything that means anything floating on an island in space. It is hard to have that perspective from close up, as author Ursula Le Guin put it:

If you can see a thing whole… it seems that it’s always beautiful. Planets, lives… But close up, a world’s all dirt and rocks. And day to day, life’s a hard job, you get tired, you lose the pattern. You need distance, interval. The way to see how beautiful the earth is, is to see it as the moon. The way to see how beautiful life is, is from the vantage point of death. 

Earthrise, taken by William Anders from the Moon.

To me, this is the uncomfortable comfort of wild spaces – of the wilderness. I grew up in the high desert, where what lies between towns and cities is mainly wild and mainly not for us.  It may sound strange, but it gives me a sense of peace to be somewhere where my presence is incidental, in the grand mountains and epic skies. That landscape’s vastness was there long before I was born, and it will long outlast me. There is a temptation when we find a place with this cosmic perspective, to use it as a kind of blurred backdrop to bring our own lives into sharper focus. However, this temptation must be resisted. The wilderness is not a canvas for your projections, not a metaphor for what you have finally realized about your own life. It just is, independent of you or your narratives.

Such grand places give perspective because of their immensity – they evoke a feeling of the sublime. But this can affect people in different ways. Sometimes the sublime in nature can inspire us, make us feel that we are part of something greater than us. Other times, being such a small piece of such a large thing can inspire fear, even existential dread, as we realise our own insignificance. But we are unique among creatures in being able to perceive and witness this. I think the polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen described it well:

The starry sky is the truest friend in life, when you first become acquainted; it is ever there, it gives ever peace, ever reminds you that your restlessness, your doubt, your pains are passing trivialities. The universe is and will remain unshaken. Our opinions, our struggles, or sufferings are not so important and unique, when all is said and done.

I felt this keenly two years ago when I went to the Arctic. It was incredible seeing the glaciers and the icy seas, a brutal but beautiful environment at the roof of the world. But my sense of peace was shattered by the evidence, all around us, that this wilderness was not so long-lasting as it might seem. Climate change had shrunk the glaciers from their former size, whaling had destroyed formerly huge populations of beluga whales, and even isolated beaches had plastic garbage washing up on them as litter was conveyed on the ocean currents from other parts of the planet. I’ve described these things as if they happened passively, but we humans have actively caused these changes to occur. In the past, we had the excuse of ignorance. We know now exactly what we are doing.

Arctic mountains, glaciers, beaches… and trash.

Our planet may continue to float perfectly suspended in space, a blue marble in an ocean of emptiness, but our place on it will evaporate if we continue our current course. There is a drastic need for change. This is why I am taking part in Homeward Bound, an initiative bringing together women in science to become leaders in climate action. Women are underrepresented in scientific leadership despite high ability and skills, due to patriarchal ideas which we must dismantle if we want to use the full complement of human ability. My cohort of 100 women from across the globe is currently training in visibility, strategy, and science leadership, and in November 2019 we will set sail to Antarctica.  This will be the largest female expedition to Antarctica, and there is no more appropriate place than the continent which is most affected by climate change, and which for so long was considered the sole purview of men.

The cost and the carbon footprint of travelling to Antarctica is high. Would it be better to not make the journey, to preserve the place by avoiding the carbon emissions? And more broadly, is it better to preserve wild places by leaving them be? Few naturalists have advocated for our planet’s wild places by avoiding them. But I believe the question is worth considering, and when I was in the Arctic my shipmates and I discussed this at length – if we believed that the Arctic was under threat, then what were we doing there? My own conclusion was that the trip was indeed wasteful, if I did not use it as an opportunity to raise awareness of climate change and produce broader societal value. So I wrote and spoke about the Arctic, I worked with artists to create new works about science, and stepped up my advocacy to be in line with my values. My Homeward Bound journey, similarly, must be larger than the physical trip – like an iceberg whose visible piece is but a small fraction of the whole.

Why not ask about the impact of not just our big gestures, but the smaller choices that make up our lives? What impact does our travel have, our energy consumption online, our food choices? What must I achieve to be worth my carbon footprint? What are we doing to justify this impact, or minimize it?

After coming back from the Arctic, I became vegetarian. That was the right choice for me, though others may view it differently and make their own individual choices. But we must remember that we are not acting on our own – our choices contribute to climate change, to the destruction of the planet we call home.  How will we justify them to our neighbours, to our children? Why not choose to act, in both our personal choices and our collective action toward corporations and governments?

Perspective is important, but perspective without action will not be enough. We must face our discomfort, and look for new solutions, if we are to have any hope of preserving what is sublime on our planet and in ourselves.

I am fundraising for my Homeward Bound journey; you can donate here if you want to help. 

The Far Northland

Over the summer I spent some time on a ship at the end of the world, as part of a science/art residency in the Arctic Circle. It was such a unique experience, and a visceral reminder of the many ways we are changing the world we live in. But I also took some videos while I was there, the first time I have marked an experience this way. While I love to take photos and find them very evocative, I was surprised how videos can bring back the immediacy of an experience like this, a reminder of the power of video for scientific communication too.

Now that I’ve finished processing them, here are all of my video missives from the Arctic, so that you can share the experience with me. And, if you are an artist or scientist and think this trip sounded amazing, you can apply for the same program here to go next year!

Unanchored

Often it’s the natural world that provides us with our first taste of science. As children we are natural explorers and investigators, trying to understand: what is that mountain made from? Why is the sky blue? What are flowers for? What do bees do? What are the stars in the sky?

This curiosity can often carry over into adulthood, even if we aren’t scientists, even if we don’t spend much time outside. I recently went on a hike with a geologist and a botanist, and I must have sounded like a child myself: why are the rocks cracked this way? What’s this flower? How were these mountains formed? And when I was in the Arctic, I noticed there too that the ecologists, the natural scientists were very popular, subject to an endless litany of questions about what we were seeing, about what it meant.

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Initially science is quite exciting, as it seems to have all the answers. But the natural world is complex, full of interconnected cycles and systems, and we are still actively discovering the ways in which weather, animal populations, plant habitats, and so many other things all depend on each other. We can watch ecological cycles, and see how they change, and look back in time to see how they have changed in the past.

And from that, we understand that we are changing our planet irrevocably.

In the Arctic, we could see the glaciers receding and the sea ice which shrinks further and further each year, thanks to the warming that our CO2 emissions have caused. The Arctic is warming faster than any region on the planet, with strong ramifications for global circulation patterns and warming and acidification of the oceans. This warming will also affect ice sheets on Greenland and Antarctica, triggering sea level rise and more extreme weather like floods, heat waves, and droughts which endanger the global food supply. While climate scientists are still working to understand the full depths of the changes the Anthropocene era of human activity has brought, what is clear is that the planet is warming, the oceans are becoming acidic, and the consequences are likely catastrophic.

For a long time, the natural world has been viewed as an endless bounty. Full of wildlife and vast resources, so much grander than we humans that the idea of changing or depleting nature seemed ridiculous. But humanity has a different perspective now. We have been to space, and seen the pale blue dot that contains all of civilization, floating alone in the void. And we have seen that Earth’s resources are finite, that we cannot extract fuels or minerals indefinitely, that we cannot kill off massive numbers of animals and expect them to magically come back next year.

In the Arctic, we visited an old whaling station, where so many beluga whales had been killed in the 1930s that the beach was littered with bones. Whaling, which was intensive and economically important for a long time, is now heavily controlled after many whale populations were driven nearly to extinction. We saw what we were doing to the planet, and we acted across national boundaries to protect our shared resources. Whaling quotas and bans are now strictly enforced, with the result that many whale populations are beginning to rebound. However, it has taken decades.

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Global action on climate change has not been as straightforward to implement. Different countries have different CO2 emissions profiles, and will be affected to varying degrees by global warming. Economic interests mean that many countries (and industries) are hesitant to take the first step, and even seemingly promising developments like the Paris accord are subject to the whims of unreliable governments who may decide that the next four years are more important than the next four hundred years.

We must fight this. Individual actions, like reducing your carbon footprint by examining how you travel, what you eat, and where you live, are a necessary and important start. However, they will not be sufficient when the economic and political situation still favors carbon emission, subsidizing fossil fuels, and spending toward entrenched lobbying interests rather than the public good of all people on our precious planet. Systemic change is needed, and realistically we are already too late to be able to stop climate change. What we can do now is act to minimize its damage.

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At the northernmost point we reached in the Arctic, nearly 80°N, we anchored our ship to an ice floe. The ice floe was only somewhat larger than the ship, and yet once we were attached to it, it felt like we were completely stationary. The sea stood all around us, the mountains and glaciers in the distance, and it seemed as if we had our feet planted firmly at the top of the world.

And yet, by tracking the ship on a map we could see that we had actually drifted several miles, attached to the ice, without feeling a thing! It is difficult to comprehend sometimes, that disconnect between what you perceive and the reality of things. And yet we know what we are seeing when we look at our warming planet, our melting world, and the science is telling us what it means. Humanity is anchored to this planet, and we too are drifting. We must open our eyes and act, if we hope to have any say in where we end up.

Art and Science in the Arctic

I just returned from two weeks aboard a sailing ship filled with artists and scientists. Your first question might be, why?

I heard about the Arctic Circle residency program during a transitional time in my life. I was weeks from unemployment and had been applying for jobs for several months already, and I didn’t really know what was coming next for me. I had been living in Ireland for more than four years and I loved it, but was it better to stay or to go back to the US? And I loved my work as a nanoscience researcher, but I had also become very active in science communication and various forms of public engagement, so would I be better off making a career transition? Was it possible to live in a way that I could do everything I loved doing, or would I have to pick and choose?

In the midst of all of this, the idea of a science/art experience, aboard a ship in the Arctic, was like a dream. Not a research expedition, not a creative hermitage, or perhaps both of those things and more. True interdisciplinarity, in a creative and inspiring environment.

And what an environment! I love the wilderness, the mountains and the sea, but the Arctic has long held a special fascination for me. It’s such a stark environment: brutal and yet full of life and beauty too. The stories of Scott, Amundsen, Nansen, and Shackleton are inspiring and terrifying in equal measure. While I have no desire to freeze to death, I wanted to see the edge of the world, to listen to nature and search for humanity.

So I wrote to the Arctic Circle, talked about projects I could do on board as well as my history of science communication and science/art collaborations. I was delighted to be selected for a 2017 expedition, to take place over the summer solstice during the season where the sun never sets. It was somewhat strange to have 15 months to think about and prepare for such an incredible journey, and in the meantime I got a new job, moved to a new city in Ireland, and came to a very different place than I was in when I first seriously thought about going to the Arctic.

I’ll be writing more about the trip, which one of the other participants pointed out was like an iceberg: the part that’s visible, the trip itself, is only a small fraction of the total. It was amazing but will take a long time to process and sort through. But to start out, I did some vlogs (a first for me so they are pretty raw), and you can watch the first one, from the day we set out, here: