Thinking on glacial scales: Lessons learned from the NW CSC Boot Camp

 Nov 30, 2015    by Diana Gergel

Standing near the Nisqually glacier, listening to National Park Service geomorphologist Paul Kennard and geologist Scott Beason discuss the impacts of climate change on Mt. Rainier glaciers, I felt the effects of climate change in a deeply profound and different way. I had known glaciers were retreating, but hadn’t realized that this process had been underway since at least before the 1970s. Nor did I know just how much glaciers had suffered in the Pacific Northwest this past year from unusually warm temperatures.

This deeply profound feeling occurred throughout my time at the Climate Boot Camp, an annual weeklong event sponsored and organized by the Northwest Climate Science Center. Climate Boot Camp brings together graduate students and early career professionals working in federal and state agencies, tribes and non-profits for a week of interdisciplinary learning about climate change. Sessions ranged from producing videos to learning about salt marshes at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. In essence, as Climate Boot Camp coordinator Arwen Bird put it, we were “following the water” from source to sink – from observing glacier retreat to seeing low water levels at the salt marshes to understanding drought impacts on Oregonians. Kathie Dello, Deputy Director of the Oregon Climate Change Research Institute (OCCRI), discussed how dire the recent drought has been in Oregon.

Salt marsh at Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: D. Gergel

But what really hit home was grounding my own work through conversations with fellows who were thinking about management and experiencing climate impacts in an immediate sense. In my research, I work on modeling the impacts of climate change on snowpack and fire risk in the western US. It is rare that I think about the management implications of my work beyond a superficial sense. As a modeler, there is a certain amount of distance I maintain from the management side of things in my quotidian research. Just before boot camp, I had been doing some new analysis to show how much soil is projected to dry out in Northwest forests and thinking about fire risk changes in the coming years. On the first day of bootcamp, several fellows from across the Pacific Northwest talked about how fires were approaching their families’ land. I felt my work – and my understanding of it – shift from looking at plots on a screen to thinking about generations of livelihoods being wiped out.  

A session led by Julie Vano, a postdoc at OCCRI, and Meade Krosby, a research scientist at UW’s Climate Impacts Group, focused on scientist-stakeholder interactions. Boot camp attendees were assigned either “scientist” or “stakeholder” roles and given a research grant call to prepare for. Role playing exercises can seem cheesy, but this one was meaningful. It made me realize the extent to which research grants are framed in terms of science questions driven by scientists, rather than in consultation with stakeholders and driven by the immediate and/or long-term science needs of resource managers attempting to adapt to climate change.

Social scientists often use the word “problematize”, meaning to call into question one’s own assumptions, and others’ conceptions, about an issue or ostensible fact. I came away from boot camp having problematized my work within a broader framework of climate change impacts and adaptation, with a far more holistic understanding of intersections between my work and other aspects of climate research. More importantly perhaps, I came away with a sort of injunction to communicate my work and share it with others. To communicate the science I am doing more effectively and make sure that my work moves beyond a purely scientific audience.

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Diana Gergel is a Ph.D. student in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Washington working with Dr. Bart Nijssen. She is also a fellow at the Northwest Climate Science Center. You can read more about her research here.

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Nisqually glaciers on Mt. Rainier.

Nisqually glaciers on Mt. Rainier. Photo: D. Gergel