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The Climate Puzzle

Demystifying the scientific process helps us understand climate change findings.

In Juneau, Alaska, the rivers are changing. At first, “nobody knew whether the glaciers in the neighbouring mountains were contributing more water into the rivers due to warmer temperatures, or less water into the rivers due to the glaciers already having retreated substantially in the past several decades,” glaciologist Joanna Young says. Through her work at the International Arctic Research Center, Young was able to track the changes and “show that more water is currently entering into the rivers of Juneau from these shrinking glaciers.” That discovery could have significant implications for roads, bridges and people’s homes.

I interviewed Young about the impacts of glacier loss on downstream ecosystems and communities; we also discussed how she sees people interacting with her research. Misconceptions about climate change, Young says, reflect larger beliefs about the scientific community and process as a whole. “I can say with certainty that the scientists I work with are genuinely motivated by the urgency of the climate crisis, and by wanting to better understand the piece of the climate puzzle they are most familiar with and fascinated by. The work for us is really a labour of love and concern more than anything.”

a helicopter on a glacier
A helicopter picks up the team after successful deployment of an automated weather station on the Gilkey Glacier, Southeast Alaska (Young).

Impacts of glacier loss

What’s the result of greater volumes of glacial water in rivers in Alaska? Not only might infrastructure be impacted but also the billion-dollar fishing industry that sustains small communities. “When glaciers melt, they deliver water into rivers that has very different characteristics than water from rain or snow – it is very cold, for example, and very murky, since it carries great amounts of finely ground-up rock sediment that the glaciers have eroded from the mountains. Those characteristics – temperature and turbidity – impact where salmon species spawn. [With the] earlier arrival of glacier meltwater into the rivers in spring each year, fisheries scientists are also seeing the earlier arrival of some salmon species.”

What does this data mean for those who rely on salmon for income and subsistence? “What we don’t know yet is what will happen when the glaciers shrink enough that they deliver less meltwater into those rivers. Will the salmon numbers decrease?” But what we do know, Young says, is that “when we see changes to one part of the ecosystem, such as to glaciers, there will inevitably be linkages to other parts of the ecosystem. Everything is connected.”

Young grew up in Ontario and studied Physics & Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. She went on to earn her Masters and PhD in Geophysics from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is motivated by seeing how relevant her work is to real communities and to other fields of study. “It seems like almost every day we are discovering new ways that the loss of glacier ice has consequences beyond just sea level rise, which is the impact most people have heard about.”

The scientific process

Most people hear about scientific findings once they are published in a peer-reviewed journal. How does data move from fieldwork to published study? Katie Everson, evolutionary biologist and Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Kentucky, created an infographic to de-mystify the process. She shows how scientists spend over a decade in studies and then begin writing grants, conducting experiments, collecting and compiling data, reworking as needed, writing and submitting results, revising based on peer reviews, and finally publication. The entire process relies on a community of researchers who hold each other responsible and seek truth together. The peer review stage is key, Everson says. “By the time that a paper has been published in an academic journal, it has been thoroughly critiqued by at least three other scientists who are also experts in that field.”

Is that a lucrative process? Both Young and Everson have heard that “scientists are in it for the money.” The truth, Everson says, is that their average pay is less than $100,000 per year. Most academic positions need grants for job stability but grant success comes at a five to 10 percent success rate, meaning that significant amounts of time go toward applying to multiple grants. Everson and Young both work in the States. In Canada statistics show that money for research has been steadily dropping since 2011, as have the number of researchers.

Kathryn M. Everson, kmeverson.org

Uncertainty? That’s healthy

Everson’s detailing of the scientific process includes multiple reviews and revisions. The reluctance of scientists to claim something for certain can confuse the public. But in the academic world, that “uncertainty” is a professional awareness of the limitations of their own experiments, data and theories.

Everson admits that “reporting uncertainty is a double-edged sword” since it’s difficult to understand without a statistical background. But “uncertainty is actually a good thing! It means that scientists are reviewing all of the data carefully, using a variety of statistical methods, and arriving at the range of answers that could offer the best explanation.”

Another misconception sensationalizes the work of scientists. The truth is that, like any other job, science comes with a high percentage of tedious tenacity. “Most of my days are spent behind a computer working with data, collaborating with colleagues, and writing scientific text,” says Young.

I asked Everson about the credibility of the process. “There are a lot of safeguards in place to protect against ethical problems,” she says. She points out that we trust doctors and mechanics to do the job they’ve trained for – why not carry the same attitude towards scientists, and believe that they are motivated to provide us with the most accurate information on new research?

a group of people standing on a glacier
Young (right) and a field team collect data by snowmobile on the Juneau Icefield in Southeast Alaska (Young).

Scientists are people too

For the last decade Young has worked on staff with Inspiring Girls Expeditions. As Director of Alaska Programs, she organizes “Girls on Ice” – an annual tuition-free program for high school girls who spend several days on a glacier in the company of professional women scientists, artists and wilderness guides. Young hopes participants experience the wonder of closely observing nature. “I also hope they learn that scientists are regular people motivated by passions, just like anyone else!”

Science isn’t as lucrative or sensational a career choice as it’s made out to be, but it’s every bit as important. Every piece of the puzzle can have a real time impact, like Young’s data on volumes of glacial water in Juneau. When it comes to sharing their findings with the world, most scientists are happy to explain what they know – but don’t be surprised if they also speak of what they don’t know.


Analyze what you read

Everson recommends looking up the original scientific journal article behind any “new scientific finding” covered by the media. “If the article doesn’t have a link to the original study, that’s a red flag.” After that, “look up whether or not the journal that published it has a peer-review process, if there is a conflict-of-interest statement and the websites and previous research of the study authors.”

What if the article is behind a paywall? Everson suggests emailing the first author of the study and asking them for a PDF for free – most are happy to oblige, she says. To her point, Everson’s contribution to this article is a response to my cold-call email through her website comment section.

  • Maaike is a freelance writer from Ontario and raised in Africa, where her heart stayed. Her degree is in Intercultural Service and World Arts.

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