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How Arctic Researchers Hold On To Hope

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NASA/Kathryn Hansen
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ICESCAPE scientists watched from the deck of the Healy as it cut a path through thick multiyear ice on July 6, 2011.

There’s record low Arctic sea ice. There’s record melting of Greenland’s glaciers. There’s unprecedented permafrost melting. And more than a million acres has been burned by wildfires in Alaska.

Each of these stories has garnered headlines this summer, but they have tended to be presented as separate events. In actuality, they are all part of the broader phenomenon of extreme Arctic warming, and they are intimately linked to each other.

Still, the total melting of the Arctic is not inevitable. We asked three Arctic researchers what keeps them coming to work in a field full of terrible news.

“I like to focus on silver linings,” Jennifer Francis of the Woods Hole Research Center told Living Lab Radio. “One of them is that these changes that we're observing in the Arctic are so huge that you don't need an instrument to detect them. You can show them to people, the public, to policymakers, to journalists. And it's obvious that these changes are happening really rapidly.”

Francis says there’s more action taking place around the country.

“Not so much in Washington, but definitely at local and state levels, and certainly in other countries around the world. So that is one of my main silver linings.”

Susan Natali, also of Woods Hole Research Center, said she finds hope in knowledge because with knowledge, we can take action.

“Some permafrost will thaw, because it's already thawing,” Natali said. “But we can greatly reduce the extent of how much permafrost thaws by increasing the urgency of our action through fossil fuel reduction and natural climate solutions.”

Scientists project that in the range of 40 to 70 percent of arctic permafrost will melt by the end of this century.

“And that big difference, between 40 and 70 percent, has to do with our fossil fuel emissions,” she said. “So, we can have a 70 percent loss of permafrost…if we take no action, or we can cut that almost in half if we take action and reduce our fossil fuel emissions abruptly.”

Twila Moon of the National Snow and Ice Data Center said she avoids “getting lost in the climate blues” by focusing on small things that she can do.

“I called up my utility company and said, ‘Hey I want to get all my energy from wind energy.’ It cost me a few cents extra for my kilowatt. It took me 20 minutes to sign up and I'm taking a direct impact.”

Moon said she takes hope in knowing that the U.S. has an ethos of being innovative.

“The good news is that the future of these changes will be fundamentally determined by human action so we can be really active players in what the future holds,” she said.

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Web content produced by Elsa Partan.

Elsa Partan is a producer for Living Lab Radio. She first came to the station in 2002 as an intern and fell in love with radio. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2006 to 2009, she covered the state of Wyoming for the NPR member station Wyoming Public Media in Laramie. She was a newspaper reporter at The Mashpee Enterprise from 2010 to 2013. She lives in Falmouth with her husband and two daughters.