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IPI Arctic Fellows experience Greenland and Denmark: State of Arctic change science and societal implications

January 31, 2019


Michelle Koutnik

Fourteen undergraduate students, led by Dr. Michelle Koutnik and graduate student John Christian from the Department of Earth and Space Sciences (ESS), as well as co-instructor Dr. Hans Christian Steen-Larsen from University of Norway, traveled far and learned widely on an Exploration Seminar to Greenland and Denmark. Between 15 August and 10 September 2018, this new study abroad opportunity was offered and joint listed as ESS 402 / Arctic Studies (ARCTIC) 387. The course focus was based on the physical science of ice and climate, but the destinations and experiences were rich in exposure and education in culture, history, and policy. The academic motivation was for students to understand how the Greenland Ice Sheet is changing due to climate change, how this affects people in Greenland and around the world, and how Denmark is leading scientific efforts to understand these changes and political efforts to mitigate these changes. Since no roads connect towns and cities in Greenland, we went by plane and ferry to locations that spanned smaller towns, stunning natural environments, and the country’s capitol city. We hiked on the Greenland ice sheet, toured the iceberg-choked fjords, and in Denmark we learned from Copenhagen how it is one of the world’s most desirable places to live and one of the most sustainable cities. Critical to the impact of this learning adventure was sharing perspectives with people in Greenland and in Denmark. Archives of our travel and impressions can be found on the course webpage.

In the past few decades, the Greenland Ice Sheet has experienced significant retreat with the speed-up of many large outlet glaciers flanking the ice sheet, and faster moving glaciers move more ice from the land to the sea. The amount of ice leaving the ice sheet is critical, because this ice melts and directly increases the global sea level.  The contribution of ice to the sea has increased in the past decades, and a major area of international research is to understand the dynamics that control the stability of this vast reservoir of interior ice that is nearly two miles thick at its center. In addition to recent changes in ice export, there has been increased melting of the ice sheet at high elevations that has scientists captivated and concerned about what will come next. Climate change has also played a role in the marked cultural change in Greenland. Since rising temperatures alter the atmosphere and the ocean bounding the Greenland Ice Sheet, and this drives ice-sheet change, we must limit carbon-dioxide emissions that contribute to warming.  Denmark is an international leader instituting policies that promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. The Danish government has in place an energy strategy that includes a target for 50% wind power use by 2020 and that aims to be independent of fossil fuels by 2050. Copenhagen has its own “green” ambitions, including being the world’s first carbon-neutral capitol city by 2025, and they have already made significant cuts to their carbon emissions.

The changing climate, and how it is affecting the Greenland Ice Sheet, is globally recognized as a high-priority issue that we must address – now. Environmental change as projected in the coming decades and reducing our carbon dioxide emissions required to turnaround the trajectory of warming into the future will both require social transformation. This includes 1) improved scientific understanding that is used in determining projection scenarios at the core of policy making, 2) improved individual-to-global understanding of science and policy action, and 3) improved understanding of people and how individuals/communities/nations react. The world is responding with research, policy, discourse, and media coverage.  The University of Washington is responding further with education. I think that higher education has a role to both educate future scientists, but also to educate scientifically aware citizens and a workforce that understands the science of environmental change. An exploration seminar to Greenland and Denmark was a significant educational step toward promoting awareness of this critical issue, and toward inspiring students to act. The state of earth science is a foundation from which societal impacts of environmental change must be understood; for example, air-temperature warming, ice loss, ocean acidification, sea-level rise, and Arctic change. The next generation will use their education to act for society, and for earth.

The following eight essays are summaries of student-led projects, and each includes a policy perspective related to the chosen topic. The work included here spans investigations into sustainable housing, urban planning, scientific exchange with Arctic communities, science communication, the Arctic Council, injustices of environmental change, resource extraction, and threats to whale populations. At the end of each post written by these students, their full paper is linked (as submitted at the end of Fall quarter 2018).

As a class, we affect policy outcomes with our new knowledge, shared perspectives, and how we go forward in the world differently after this experience. Following this definition of policy, “a course or principle of action adopted or proposed by an organization or individual”, we can connect our own ideas to policy by identifying actions that could be taken at the personal level and beyond (governments, corporations, international agencies, etc.). In a nutshell, policy is the formal communication between organizations, ad hoc groups of individuals focused on a particular issue, as well as governments. Student research, reflections, and critical thinking that has taken place as a result of the Exploration Seminar is unique and can have bearing on future policy from the local, and even to the international. What follows in this series is a chance for students to share how their research may have bearing on policy thinking.

This publication was made possible in part by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.