Let's Do Something BIG.
A COMMUNITY DEDICATED TO TELLING THE STORIES OF ENVIRONMENTAL ADVOCATES WORKING TOWARDS MAKING THIS WORLD A BETTER PLACE.
COVID-19: Practicing Social Distancing and Environmental Optimism at the Same Time
I think I speak for most of us when I say that keeping up with the daily news this year has been painfully exhausting. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed to find a self-care guide catered to current events that doesn’t instruct you to completely detach yourself from the news cycle from time to time. But amidst all of the stories, facts, and data we consume regarding COVID-19’s devastatingly negative effects on human society as we know it, there are a few tidbits of seemingly good news about the environment.
Intuitively, this makes sense. Countries around the world who have experienced high coronavirus caseloads have fully locked down, resulting in some eerie photos of empty highways, airports, and public spaces, including a Times Square fully devoid of crowds in New York City. Many of the folks who would normally be commuting to work, flying to distant vacation destinations, and gathering in cities for professional conferences or social events are instead remaining at home, so greenhouse gas emissions and other air pollutants associated with travel and daily life should decrease.
And this is exactly what scientists have observed: a report released by IQAir on Earth Day outlines the results of a study comparing fine particulate matter measured in the air of major global cities before and during the pandemic. Of the ten cities studied, nine of them showed drastic reductions in air pollution as a result of their lockdowns, with Delhi, India; Los Angeles, US; Wuhan, China; and Mumbai, India experiencing the largest decreases compared with their previous four-year averages. In April, someone in Delhi even described the air as "positively alpine!" (Observe current air quality anywhere in the world here.)
Carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, one of the main culprits in global temperature rise, has also been on the decline as a result of the pandemic. The International Energy Agency expects that global CO2 emissions will fall by 8% (nearly 2.6 gigatons) in 2020 – the largest drop ever recorded. This emissions reduction is the result of a global decline in demand for energy from coal, oil, and gas. CarbonBrief notes that an 8% emissions drop is approximately equal to the annual emissions reductions needed to meet the Paris Agreement's target of limiting global warming to less than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.
So, what do these reports really mean for the environment and the future of climate action post-pandemic? I’m not trying to squash the optimism anyone – myself included – might be feeling after scanning headlines of the “nature is healing” sort, but there are a few important things to keep in mind. First, although it is tempting to use the recent reports as definitive evidence that humans are the direct cause of environmental degradation (a.k.a. “we are the virus”), this way of thinking can lead to the dangerous and ecofascist belief that part of the human population must die for the earth to survive. In reality, it is our economic framework – the prioritization of profit over planet, the belief that economic growth can and should continue indefinitely despite finite resources, and the view of the natural world as a commodity – that leads to detrimental environmental outcomes from human activity. Human societies can, and have, existed in peaceful coexistence with the environment in the absence of these economic structures and beliefs. It’s possible even at our current stage of technological advancement. For example, Ireland took major steps to divest from fossil fuels in 2018, voting to sell its holdings in coal, oil, gas, and peat in favor of replacement with renewables.
Unless sweeping changes are made to our methods of energy production, expert predictions and historical evidence agree that the rebound from this economic downturn will most likely result in higher carbon and pollutant emissions than were occurring pre-pandemic, as countries and businesses scramble to make up for lost time and profits. After the 2008-2009 economic crisis in the US, economic recovery ushered in an immediate rebound in CO2 emissions, with the highest year-to-year increase on record in 2010. At present, climate experts are saying that overall greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere, and the environmental impacts resulting from them, will continue to increase despite this temporary slow-down in anthropogenic carbon input. This is because we’ve been combusting fossil fuels for energy a lot longer than we’ve been living under stay-at-home orders. Andrea Dutton, a climate scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said in an interview for this National Geographic article that cumulative emissions are what really matters: “If [the reduction in emissions] is short-lived, it’s not really touching the tip of iceberg.” Evidence from China, compiled by CarbonBrief, shows that coal consumption at power plants, oil refinery utilization, and nitrogen dioxide pollution levels all returned to a normal range by the end of March.
This all makes sense considering that the improvements we are currently seeing do not result from the implementation of a set of policies designed to leave a healthier planet for future generations. Instead, they are the outcome of a temporary societal change initiated to prevent the spread of an infectious disease and protect the health of those who are living on the planet now, with short-term environmental improvements as a side effect. Any strategy implemented to address climate change will need to involve permanent societal changes that are economically sustainable as well.
Taking the news of recent reductions in air pollution and carbon emissions with a grain of salt feels like a bummer. But knowing that we can globally mobilize against a common threat is something that’s been allowing me to maintain a sense of optimism. For years we have watched political leaders fail to meet collaborative climate goals, but in response to an immediate threat, we have seen countries learning from one another’s experiences, with many leaders prioritizing public health over economic growth. We have also seen renewable energy sources gain traction over fossil fuels, momentum that could be carried through economic recovery if made a priority. If we – collectively, globally – responded to climate change as urgently as we have responded to the coronavirus pandemic, imagine the environmental healing we would facilitate.
It is an election year where I live, so I’ll leave you with a few open-ended questions that the events of 2020 have brought to light: how are your leaders (national and local) dealing with the coronavirus crisis? Have their responses been empathetic, equitable, and considerate of the disproportionate impacts that the crisis has had on various groups? Have they shaped their policies around scientific evidence every step of the way? Will they make the environment a priority in their recovery efforts? Stay safe, stay healthy…stay passionate, and stay involved!
Go Forth… and Science!
I’ve often thought that an internal monologue of frustration-based expletives is the laugh track of scientists. Not only are we often inventing new ways to figure out things that have only been imagined before, but usually those inventions turn up answers that are opposite to what we thought they would be… so then we have to spend time finagling our brains around the new information to determine what it means. But what of when something goes right? When a code error finally gets fixed or a big idea falls into place, when someone else’s results match your own or a conversation with other scientists catapults you into a whole new chaotic exciting adrenalin-pumping hopeful way of thinking? Ooooh dang is that satisfying.
But even when things work out, there is always a next challenging step. Curiosity never rests for a scientist, and neither does our drive to share our discoveries with others. However, when we barely understand our own work, when our brains are grasping at straws (reusable, non-plastic ones of course), how can we expect to communicate our work in a way that others can understand? And not only fellow scientists, but politicians and grocery store clerks and the IT woman who saved the content of your laptop when you spilled coffee on it at 3am last year?
Science communication, in some ways, is even more challenging than the science itself. In its purest form, it’s translation. We have to take technical jargon, statistics, plots with thousands of data points and years of work and condense it down into one simple message that is easy for everyone to understand. But here’s where it really gets tricky: there is no way that one simple message can reach everyone. There are almost 8 billion human brains on this planet, and the beauty of our species is that every single one of those 8 billion brains thinks differently. But, as we’ve figured out in every past and present conversation ever, communicating with other people is hard.
So, I can’t say that I’ll do a good job reaching everyone (I am just one person lucky enough to have internet access and a nerdy-art-fixation), but I am excited to scratch a little bit of the surface. I’m excited to be a science translator. I’m excited to take complex science and turn it into comics and podcasts and adventure stories. I’m excited to bring you ‘Go Forth and Science’.
‘Go Forth and Science’ originally began as an idea stemmed from conversations around my grad school living room table with my roommates. Then it turned into a resumé booster to make me look better to full-time job hiring teams (seriously, what even is a full-time job?). And now it’s finally settled into a platform where I can share my passions for science and the world around us with people who are interested in following along. For those who have long commutes or learn best through storytelling, I have a podcast where I talk about natural sciences with cool guests, and of course tie in all the crazy adventures we get into when we’re trying to discover the world (like sleeping on glaciers, hunting for hot springs, and crying in front of high schoolers). For those who like to learn visually, I have infographics and comics. My drawings are mostly about sea life right now but stay tuned for more branching out on that front. For those who learn by doing, come find me on a sailboat and we’ll definitely get our hands mucky. But, since it might take a while for both of us to end up on the same boat together, in the meantime you can check out my website at www.goforthandscience.com.
How to Make an Impact as an Early-Career Scientist - Why Your Next Research Partner Should Be an Economist
You must be doing something right if you get paid to do as a researcher what you did for fun when you were five. Or so I told myself often during my first environmental consulting job out of college, trying to view a summer of soil and veg transects for new building permits on the border of Grand Teton National Park as something other than monotonous and morally ambiguous. I spent every day sifting through wildflowers, coyote tracks, and glacial deposits that had evolved into complex microbiomes capable of supporting this incredible and unique ecosystem. The sickly-sweet smell of sagebrush covered my body as I knelt on the ground and made my head spin. I would stand up every so often for a breath of fresh air, look out over the valley - and see the mass of concrete and pavement rolling out from the valley center like some kind of permanent fog. I would consider how soon the fog would reach my field site, how soon another house or road would obliterate the ground on which I stood. I’d feel sick all over again. So I’d crouch back down and get on with my work, as powerless to stop urban sprawl from claiming my favorite places now as I had been when I first discovered my love of the outdoors.
Every socially conscious earth scientist with whom I’ve spoken has encountered this feeling of helplessness at some point in their career. Some respond by increasing their commitment to education and outreach, while others pour themselves into studies that will produce meaningful and actionable data. There don’t seem to be many other options for early career scientists; whether you’re in academia or industry, research demands time and objectivity in quantities that preclude direct activism on environmental issues. Organizations such as 314.org are working to give scientists a greater voice in U.S. political institutions, and highly prominent scientists can take part in the science diplomacy pushing environmental agreements on the international stage, but those of us still in/ just leaving school need to find ways to make our research relevant in the public sphere now.
Understanding the physical phenomena behind the environmental changes in our own backyards does not prepare scientists to explain the socio-economic phenomena driving those changes. We can show with relative ease how the physical systems of the built environment interact with those of the natural environment to produce suboptimal outcomes. The largest barrier to successful communication between the scientific community and the wider public isn’t that scientists lack communication skills, it’s that environmental science is not necessarily a problem-solving tool to be shared with the public in and of itself. Environmental issues result from the workings of complex social institutions - if you want your environmental research to have an impact on environmental issues, you are going to need to partner with some social scientists.
I hope that at this point I’m preaching to the choir, but the distance (or, at worst, disdain) with which I’ve been treated by geo/biophysical scientists since switching from geoscience to environmental economics has been disheartening. I did not enter economics because I’m less capable or curious or outdoorsy than other environmental scientists; I just wanted a more direct tool set for protecting the places and ecosystems worth researching. Economists like 2018 Nobel Prize-winner Bill Nordhaus have been translating scientists’ warnings about climate change into viable, votable policy tools since the 1980s. Of course, policy-makers and the public do not always listen to economists, either, but explaining environmental issues as part of solutions-oriented policy packages does more to motivate science-based public action than environmental education alone.
Innovation at the intersection of science and economics will be critical to the success of any versions of the Green New Deal passed at the city, state, or federal levels in the United States. The bill’s recent defeat in the U.S. Senate should be viewed as an opportunity for more scientists (e.g. YOU) and economists to team up and weigh in on the types of programs and research that a New Green Deal should fund. Climate change mitigation initiatives in the United States largely ignore the socio-environmental interactions driving climate change— I’m thinking specifically of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI)’s inability to address land use change. This market-based CO2 emissions reduction initiative engages power companies in participating states without addressing the underlying drivers of power consumption. Yet even if power companies in RGGI states transitioned to 100% renewables, the consumption of land and consumer goods driving power use would still emit greenhouse gases. Urban and exurban sprawl, unsustainable forestry and agricultural practices, melting ice caps - the environmental problems that you study are physical manifestations of the financial and social institutions studied by economists.
In a political climate capable of creating a Green New Deal, we can go beyond the limited scope of RGGI to address the structural social causes of high energy consumption and ecological degradation. One specific policy tool that scientists and economists can work together to improve is use-value assessment, a type of preferential taxation that incentivizes conservation on private land. Multiple levels of government could leverage use-value assessment (UVA) programs to address the direct and underlying drivers of climate change by:
Designing and enacting UVA programs to fundamentally improve social and environmental outcomes requires that policy makers understand dependencies in social and environmental outcomes. Data characterizing these dependencies at the resolution needed for policy design often does not exist, and cannot exist outside of an integrated earth and social sciences research framework.
Identifying potential economist recruits starts at your field site, in your data set, or wherever you make your observations. Take note of the social and economic factors that you notice or suspect are at play - no need to understand how or why they might impact your work. Then look at the research posters in the economics buildings on your campus. Search for keywords relating to your work and “economics” in Google Scholar. Scan the research summaries of the economists at your local land grant university (note that some of them might be based in the agriculture and forestry schools). Reach out to these economists with your observations, questions, and ideas for collaboration; they are likely as excited as you to produce innovative and impactful research. Analytical advances from science and economics can and must be further integrated to make the true benefits of solving socio-environmental problems visible to the public, policy-makers, and ourselves.
*Thank you to Mariama for letting me share my thoughts on her blog! Congratulations on defending your master’s thesis! Thanks also to my UMaine environmental economics colleagues George Voigt and Eric Miller for their edits.
Listen to 'we persist.'—a podcast telling the stories of women and underrepresented people in the Earth, ocean & environmental sciences
The introductory and first episodes of 'we persist.'--a podcast focused on sharing the stories of women and underrepresented people in the Earth, ocean and environmental sciences is officially launched! Check out our podcast page for updated information on podcast episodes...but for now enjoy this introduction to what is to come.
The Future of LDSB.
This blog post is a little bit different. It's less focused on critical thinking around a specific environmental or science-related topic, and more of an update on life activities and what I see the future of Let's Do Something BIG. (LDSB.) to be.
Hi. I am Mariama. I am not sure I've properly introduced myself in this space before, but I am the person behind the sporadic posting of guest blogger material and the 'creator and editor' of LDSB.. I started this website in the fall of 2016 after diving deep into a thought dialogue about how wonderful words are as a motivator for change and a medium through which to educate. I was troubled by the state of the environment, where anthropogenic (human-caused) climate change was taking us and inspired to create a space where people from all walks of life could communicate their thoughts in relation to the environment or making the world a better place in general.
Over time, I have thought a lot about what makes (or could make) LDSB. unique, why people would or should choose to read the contents of this blog and community over others, and where I see this project going in the future. To be honest (and anyone who has read LDSB. posts from the beginning will know) the content of this blog has kind of been all over the place. It started as a place where interesting people from different places or walks of life could share what they thought to be valuable information for environmental advocates to know, has more recently acted as a platform from which to operate plastic pollution awareness campaigns, and a place where people could people talk about science communication. During this time, I have finished my undergraduate degree and have been nose-deep in graduate school work. As we speak this blog post is acting as a productive procrastination technique for me to delay finishing a final, 20-page paper and PhD application due this Friday. One thing that has remained consistent is that this website has been a space with content reflective of my thoughts and passions at any given point in time.
But I want this blog and community to have focus, and to be different.
Over the past year, different facets of my personal motivation and passions have been simmering, recently picking up in voracity, at times boiling over and resulting in hyper-motivation to inspire change in the world and spaces in which I work. I care a lot about equality (equality for all regardless of color, socioeconomic background, creed, gender or sexual orientation) and the environment. So, the logical way to combine these two personal motivators has been through advocating for equality and equal opportunity in the earth, ocean and environmental sciences. In the polar sciences, the realm in which I work, there is a huge gap between the number of women (of course just one type of diversity) who are graduate school level educated (nearly half) and who ends up in a tenured position in this area. This has to change. In general, diversity and inclusion in all earth, environmental and ocean sciences spaces is incredibly valuable to us striving to conduct the best science possible.
So, this space will continue to be a place to discuss the public-science interface and environmental advocacy, suggesting grassroots solutions as the way forward--but will grow to focus more and more upon equal representation and involvement in the earth and ocean sciences.
From this platform I will also be launching a podcast that interviews rad women and underrepresented people in the earth and ocean sciences (in all different career stages)--to hear stories of how people from all backgrounds came to be involved in science, how they overcame adversity and to learn what their science is about. There are already some wonderful podcasts out there about women in science (potential future post?!), but this one aims to be more broadly inclusive and specific to the earth and ocean sciences.
I've already spoken with some super interesting people, and am extremely excited to share some of these incredible conversations with you in the next several months!
Stay tuned, and have an incredible rest of 2018.
The alarmist approach to conveying science doesn’t really work for me: The earth is warming, glaciers are melting, all the phytoplankton in the ocean are going to die and the entire food web will collapse, so we need to study this now! It’s too Chicken Little. But I’m noticing, in all the literature I read and the grant proposals I’m starting to write, we are pushed to justify why our work is the most crucial, the most underappreciated, the first of its kind. We are trained to convey urgency and importance, sometimes over exaggerating what we know to be true, so we can get the funding or get the story published.
But does that approach work for everyone? Of course not. Scientists have evolved beyond their peer-reviewed publications to need to communicate through multiple platforms: lectures, news media, personal interactions, blogs, etc. and to multiple age ranges: K-grey, non-scientists, policy makers, grant funders. So how do we best do that, hitting the sweet spot of communication?
Everyone is hooked in a different way. When you say the word “Science”, I immediately want to know more, but I’m a scientist. In that respect, it’s been a challenge for me to figure out how to communicate to a wider audience where just saying the word science doesn’t capture the attention of my audience. I am constantly asking my mom and business friends to read over my work. They each give me different opinions. But all of them have told me to stop leading with the scientific justification. During my Master of Advanced Studies program at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO), we were taught how to convert scientific work into an engaging “sticky” presentation. We read the book ‘Made to Stick’ and learned that there is a formula for communicating that boils down to one main idea: make it sticky. The goal is obvious, but the method to get there can take many forms—one needs to connect to the audience through surprise, inquiry, or a personal story. We practiced each of these different approaches aimed at connecting to an audience, and our peers let us know what worked and what did not work. We presented scientific papers in the stickiest way possible, sometimes feeling like we were doing the science a disservice by not divulging all the nitty gritty details.
I am now a first-year graduate student in the PhD program at SIO under Dr. Maria Vernet. I lead a citizen science project with the tourism industry in Antarctica called FjordPhyto. Our project encourages passengers to get involved in collecting phytoplankton samples from polar coastal fjords. They learn about the ocean in ways they may never have previously considered and the samples help us understand how the community of phytoplankton changes throughout the season in response to increased levels of glacial meltwater. I have had to communicate in a countless variety of ways. Some come more naturally to me, others I struggle to find the appropriate words and style through which to communicate. Over the course of running this project I have communicated with polar guide staff, trained non-scientists to follow scientific protocols, provided short videos introducing myself and the project to travelers. I even had a chance to board one of the ships to give in-person lectures to the guests. I share stories and results through the project website, blog posts, and social media platforms. I created a crowdfunding campaign to interest donors in supporting our project. I’ve started on the journey of grant writing, and I attend conferences to speak to a wide audience of scientists, educators, and policy-makers about my work. How do I know how to do all this communication and outreach?
I’m winging it.
Nowhere in our PhD program are we required to take courses on communication development. If we want that training, we need to look for opportunities offered outside of our program. The good news is, that training does exist. I’ve attended communication workshops, workshops on how to give a TED talk, and how to write for different non-science audiences. I’ve organized talks on science and career opportunities at classrooms, cafes, and pubs just to put myself out there in front of people. I’ve developed social media platforms and two websites that I post regularly on: www.womanscientist.com, which highlights my science career and showcases inspiring women in field sciences through blogs, YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, and www.fjordphyto.org, which hosts information on the citizen science project we run in Antarctica.
What I’ve realized, is that the key to communication is to just do it. It is a skill you build over time. Just write. Just blog. Just make a video. Just start somewhere with anything you want to share. It doesn’t always have to be polished when you first start out. Forget perfection! I often reread old posts I’ve written and cringe. But that’s not what matters. What matters is that I’m engaging with people. The key is to share that I’m a personable human, and a scientist. I’m not a sterile being wearing a lab coat, working robotically in the lab.
If you had told me when I was younger that I would teach high school classes, run two websites, speak on ships to tourists about science, write research papers and grant proposals, I would have told you you’ve got the wrong person. I was the shy kid at school. So shy in fact that multiple people wrote in my yearbook: “You seem cool, you should talk more.” What did they mean? What do people talk about?! I observed my peers trying to figure it out. Looking back, I realize this was my first step to learning the art of communication. How do people know what to say and when to say it? I analyzed. Overanalyzed. Just like a scientist. Then one day it hit me. Communication is an art. There is no right way, no one way. People are curious and want to connect with other people. So just share your stories. Be a personable person. Share the work you’re doing and the emotions you have about your ups and downs in science. Storytelling and communication are skills and once you build a good skill base, you can practice the art and transform it into something of your own.
Of course, I still get nervous. I obsess over whether I’ll say the right thing, have the right explanation, give the right answer. But I remind myself that I’m human too. I have the skills, now I’m working on the art and I can communicate in the ways I feel impact a wide audience. Whatever I say, it will be OK. If I want to use the alarmist approach to hook people, or avoid it and just use a personal story, I can do that. I have a lot of fun in my line of work as a young world-traveling oceanographer, and I want others to be curious about the natural world, pursue that curiosity, and be inspired to get involved in science themselves. That is the angle I take when sharing my science.
The following post is from the Let's Do Something BIG. Plastic Free July Support Group on Facebook. Check it out and join in on the conversation of how we can each reduce our single-use plastic consumption.
A Brief Introduction
When I first started cutting plastic out of my life, there were LOADS of things I learned and struggled with initially, as each of you will find in the next month or so of implementation. You can read more about that experience here, but this page will provide you with several need-to-know things to help to reduce your waste. Just a few things to note before those tips...No matter whether you are doing the challenge for the whole month or just a week, use this group to post updates and photos from your efforts to complete the no-plastic challenge and share the things you have done to cut it out. Feel free to share tips, ask questions and post a TON because the more content we have, the more education that can be done. For the month/week during which you complete this challenge, please collect every bit of plastic that you intentionally/unintentionally use that would otherwise be thrown away or recycled in a glass jar with a lid. At the end of the challenge, I plan to get a photo of everyone's jar/each person with their jar and a brief tip/post about your experience. Photos of tips and experiences of ambassadors will be shared on LDSB’s instagram. The idea here is not to throw out every single bit of plastic in our lives right away if it is still functional (doing so would be really wasteful), but to use these things to the extent of their lifetime and then replace them with more sustainable materials once they are tossed away. (i.e. if you use tupperware/plastic containers to take your lunch around in, you would ideally replace those once they are no longer usable with some sort of metal or glass container) The overall point in this challenge is to become more aware of how much plastic is everywhere in our lives, and what we can do to reduce our use of it--as it is really quite terrible for the environment (SEE BELOW). RIGHT! Let’s get started!
Tips and Tricks for Avoiding Plastic
Single-use plastics are everywhere, here are some tips to avoiding them:
Resources, Videos and Information
There is SO MUCH information online! Learn more about zero-waste living and plastic-free alternatives, and how people have worked these things into their lifestyles.
This is a good list to get you started.
WHERE TO BUY
This is a list, by state, of shops with package free shopping options around the United States. Similar maps exist for the UK and other countries around the world. Have a search and share with us what you find!
Lauren Singer also recently started the Package Free Shop, which has free shipping all over the US for orders over $50. They ship plastic-free, and have loads of plastic free products available online.
Sure, you’ve agreed to my pleas of getting involved with the challenge, but WHY? Why does it matter? As plastic can only be down-cycled it can never, ever be gotten rid of once it is produced. Every. single. piece. of plastic that is produced will either end up in a landfill or the oceans. Yes, recycling is better than not, however keep that fact in mind. Right. Okay. But how does the fact that it ends up in the oceans affect me? Out of sight, out of mind, right? I beg to differ. Plastic has detrimental effects on life that subsists in and off of the oceans (including us!). Aside from the fact that the ocean faces mass extinctions due to other environmental issues, plastic contributes to putting this life in danger. Watch these videos for more information:support group page updated with such materials, so check back from time to time for further guidance and resources. Also keep in mind that this process will inevitably be quite challenging, and at times all of us will fail, but what matters at the end of the day is that 1) we all learn something and 2) in at least some small way we are reducing the overall amount of single-use plastics consumed. Thank you so much for getting involved with this project, about which I am very excited. Cut out that plastic, stay optimistic and always remember that together we can do something BIG. Good luck!
Plastic Free July!
Get excited for another round of plastic-free inspiration with posts on our Instagram from our ambassadors throughout all of Plastic Free July! If you are keen to learn more about plastic consumption reduction in general or to become an ambassador yourself, check out LDSB.'s Plastic Free July Support Group on Facebook. Watch this space for a Plastic Free July round up post towards the end of the month, and try your darndest to refuse single-use plastics for this month of July!
Communicating Science Through Art
My name is Jill Pelto, I am a Masters student at the University of Maine in the Earth and Climate Sciences Department, and I work in the Antarctic. My research addresses the history of the ice sheet over the last 10,000 years, focusing on the retreat of ice in the southern Ross Embayment. This sort of paleoclimate work is done in large part to learn about the sensitivity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet in the past to various ocean and climate parameters, to better understand how it may respond to current change.
I am also a climate change artist, and I create paintings that address both positive and negative environmental topics, with the aim of using art as a platform for effective science communication.
As an undergraduate student I worked on two separate majors at UMaine: Studio Art and Earth Science, and I developed a strong drive to link the often disparate fields. In my painting and printmaking courses I sought to compose images that shared what I was learning in my classes about the climate and glacier systems. I was inspired to share important environmental topics, as well as subjects that are simply fascinating to learn about. I was able to work in the field several times in my undergraduate career with Dr. Brenda Hall, and created field sketches and watercolors while doing work in these places, which included a field season in the Dry Valleys of Antarctica. Over my five years in these programs I continued to develop ideas for showcasing science in my art, with my overarching goal being a meaningful communication
about our natural world.
I wanted to gauge reactions to my artwork, and my initial audience was my classmates, professors, friends, and family. I was able to hear various interpretations of what my art communicated to them both emotionally and informationally. My objective was to engage people broadly by creating pieces that could express clearly and impactfully.
So far, the most successful and creative approach I have developed is incorporating graphical data into my artwork. I use x-y plots that tell simple stories of change over time, and link these with a visual message about the research question. Several topics I’ve chosen are: increasing temperatures over the last century and how this affects forest fire frequency; melting sea ice in the arctic and how this impacts species that rely on it; a shift in the United States to green energy use and how this inspires further conservation.
One of the first steps I plan to take as I finish graduate school and begin my career is to collaborate with scientists from a myriad of disciplines to communicate the research that they do with a broader audience. Art is a powerful form of expression, and is an excellent platform for inspiring thought. Whether I can transform reactions to my art into inspiring action is a question I hope to be able to answer in the years to come; but, without a doubt, I will try! Another major goal of mine is to continue to use my data art to teach younger generations about our changing world. It’s absolutely crucial that we share and instill an understanding of the impact of humanity on the environment, in school systems world-wide. I helped to develop a lesson plan about my work with Science Friday’s Ryan Becker, and it has been absolutely wonderful to see the creations of students from around the world, and how the students have learned from this!
I still have a lot to learn about communication, and I am continuing to explore different ways to mix science and art. One of the biggest inspirations for me has been working in Antarctica; it has been so impactful to actually visualize the role of the ice sheets for maintaining the sea level and climate in which we live today. Once I finish my degree, I plan to make a series about the beauty and vulnerability of these locations.
Young scientists are entering a field that needs more clear, and more diverse, communication with the public. As a result it is important to seek out a variety of methods for sharing the outcomes and messages of research, and note that collaboration with others (journalists, artists, writers, teachers, etc.) is a really successful way to achieve this. It’s important for us as scientists to start thinking outside of the box, and begin to explore unique, alternative methods through which to communicate science.
Effective communication of science to a wide audience is arguably as important as the science itself, although it receives less attention in the academic world. As a first-year master’s student, I can finally say that I am relatively confident in my ability to read an academic journal article and come away from it with an understanding of the scientific questions answered and the big-picture implications of the results—provided that the paper relates to my specific sub-field. The further the topic strays from atmospheric dynamics as inferred from ice core chemistry, however, the more lost I become. Now don’t get me wrong, I totally understand the importance of publishing technical papers in academic journals written for an audience of experts. But everyone—experts, non-experts, people of all academic levels and concentrations—is dependent upon nature. And in a world where the natural sciences are increasingly tied to politics, it is essential for policymakers, and those who elect them, to be able to understand how we affect nature and how we can better coexist with it.
One of my favorite sessions at the 2016 American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference involved talks by scientists about their research, with the caveat that they could only use the 1,000 most used English words. This was a refreshing break from many of the other talks I’d been to that day, which, as an undergrad attending my first AGU meeting, had been way over my head.
It took one Google search to find this helpful Text Editor created by Theo Sanderson. The page allows users to type into a box and underlines any word that is not one of the 1,000 most used. As an example, here is the original text of my undergraduate thesis title and abstract followed by the “translation” I came up with:
“Evaluating Precipitation in Southern Alaska using Ice Core and Automatic Weather Station Records”
Precipitation in Alaska is sensitive to the Aleutian Low (ALow) pressure system and North Pacific sea-surface temperatures, as shown by the increase in Alaskan sub-Arctic precipitation associated with a shift in the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) in 1976. Precipitation in the high-elevation accumulation zones of Alaskan alpine glaciers provides critical mass input for glacial mass balance, which has been declining in recent decades due to warmer summer temperatures despite the winter precipitation increase. Twin ice cores holding a climate record of more than 1,200 years, collected from the summit plateau of Mount Hunter in Denali National Park, Alaska, show a doubling of annual snow accumulation over the past 150 years, with most of the change observed in the winter. Other alpine ice cores collected from the Alaska and St. Elias ranges show similar snowfall increases over recent decades. Here we use Automatic Weather Station (AWS) data from the Mt. Hunter drill site (elevation 3,900 m a.s.l.) and from nearby Denali climber’s Base Camp (elevation 2,195 m a.s.l.), as well as from various low- altitude coastal sites throughout south-central Alaska, to evaluate alpine and lowland Alaskan precipitation on annual, seasonal, and storm-event timescales over the time period from 2013- 2016. Through this analysis, we determine that synoptic patterns associated with individual storms at the Denali ice core site are consistent with seasonally-averaged anomalies for the wettest seasons over the entire south-central Alaska region, which provides confidence in our ability to use the ice core as a regional climate proxy. We focus on the role of variable ALow and North Pacific High strength in influencing seasonal variations in Alaskan storm tracks and find that differences in synoptic conditions, such as precipitation, sea level pressure, and winds, are associated with differences in the paths of regional-scale storms between summer and winter. Our analysis will improve our paleoclimate interpretations of the 1,200-year Mt. Hunter accumulation record as well as improve our ability to understand low-elevation hydroclimate proxies from lake sediment cores.
1,000 Most Used Words Translation:
“Studying stuff that falls from the sky using sticks of ice and stuff that has already fallen from the sky”
Stuff that falls from the sky in the highest-up US state responds to changes in where the air goes and to how warm the big water body is. In high-up places that are home to really big bodies of ice, ice-rain is important for the big bodies of ice to stay as big as they are. They have been getting smaller because it is getting warmer, even though more ice-rain is falling during the time of year when it's cold. Two sticks of ice were taken from one of the big ice bodies, and they can tell us what the air used to feel like and how much stuff used to fall from the sky. They show that in the past 150 years, the number of ice-rains has gone up times two. Most of the going-up has happened during the part of the year when it's cold. Other ice sticks taken from places close by show pretty much the same thing. Here, we look at how much ice-rain has fallen from the sky at the high-up place we took the ice sticks from, at a slightly lower place, and at several different places that are much lower (next to the big body of water). We are studying how much has fallen at these places each year, each part of the year, and during times when the sky is angry, for the time from 2013 to 2016. By doing this, we found out that when the sky is angry at the high-up places, it is also angry at the lower places. This makes us feel that we can use the ice sticks to find out how the air used to feel and how much stuff used to fall from the sky in this whole area. We also focus on how the sky is acting to make rain and ice-rain come in from different directions at different times of year. This study will help us use the ice sticks to learn more about how it used to be in this area. It will also make it easier to use sticks of brown stuff from the floor of little bodies of water to understand how the air used to feel and how much stuff fell from the sky in low places that don't have any big bodies of ice.
Obviously, effective science communication for a wide audience would fall somewhere in between these two renditions (unless you happen to be giving a talk in a kindergarten classroom). This task was initially difficult for me—I don’t normally think of storms as “times when the sky is angry”! —but it became easier as my brain shifted its way of communicating. This makes me believe that science can be made understandable for an audience of any level, as long as we challenge our minds to think in ways we aren’t used to, or necessarily comfortable with. Fundamentally, what truths do we as scientists want to convey?
With that, I challenge you scientists out there to try this exercise for yourself! And if you are coming from outside of science and run into road-blocks in understanding technical scientific writing on a platform put out to the general public, reach out to the authors to let them know. For it is the collective responsibility of scientists to make the science we do digestible by the general public.
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