State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

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Why Care About the Polar Regions? These Polar Climate Ambassadors Will Tell You.

Polar Climate Ambassadors
The inaugural group of Polar Climate Ambassadors: Siya, Arnav, Alina, Janice, Ben and Bella.

Polar Climate Ambassadors is an education initiative launched this summer that focuses on high-school students. Based at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, it is funded by two major projects that are conducting field research into the past and present dynamics of the Greenland Ice Sheet, the GRate and GreenDrill programs. Below, members of the inaugural class discuss the program and some of the issues they studied, and present videos they produced.

Why Polar Climate Ambassadors? by Janice Yohannan, 2023 graduate of Nyack High School
Although climate change is becoming more widely discussed, when it comes to the polar regions, many people’s knowledge ends at polar bears. The polar regions are a critical aspect of the climate crisis, but polar science is not always accessible, especially to young students. The newly formed Polar Climate Ambassadors program seeks to help close this gap. It is an exciting opportunity for high-school students who are passionate about climate change to advocate and broaden public understanding of the polar regions. This summer, six students immersed themselves in building polar literacy, and developing a deeper understanding of climate systems, career pathways and science communication. The program’s mission is to show that the polar regions are crucial to maintaining the balance of other earth systems, and helping our communities understand the implications of the Arctic and Antarctic’s rapidly changing environments.

We conducted interviews, developed learning games, created materials focused on visualizing data, and designed infographics and public service announcements. In this way, we learned ways to effectively communicate climate science, with an emphasis on encouraging community members and peers to take action. We were simultaneously exposed to the growing polar research field, and the presence and importance of Indigenous communities in the Arctic. Each student walked away with a profound excitement to fight climate change in their life outside the program, and a greater awareness of the beauty and importance of the poles.

Youth Sue the State of Montana Over Climate Change: Our Meeting With Lead Plaintiff Rikki Held by Siya Balapal, student at Nanuet Senior High School
Four years after the initial cause of action was filed for the case Held v. Montana, history just unfolded in court. Essentially, 16 young plaintiffs succeeded in suing their state, Montana, over failures related to climate change. Montana officials were proven to worsen climate conditions in the state, depriving the youth of their right to a clean and healthy environment. Not only was this a major turning point for climate litigation, but also for youth empowerment in government—something emphasized by scientists in the clip below that we compiled.

At the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, our group got the amazing opportunity and privilege to meet with Rikki Held. Her last name labels the case because, at the age of 18, she was the only plaintiff who was a legal adult when the filing occurred. A fifth generation Montanan, Rikki grew up on her family farm and watched firsthand the impacts of climate change on their land. With air quality in her state exceptionally low and harmful pollutants from nearby coal-fired power plants a constant presence in the air, she decided to help take a stand. Her decision moved her into a leadership role in the case.

Rikki is very committed, with a sense of strength and perseverance. One thing that stood out to us was her ability to step forward to battle the state, but then to step back and pursue other passions even as the case continued. She soon will leave for a new opportunity with the Peace Corps.

It was soon after we met her that the ruling favoring the plaintiffs came down. The case is an important step in environmental litigation that will likely serve as a backbone for future cases. Rikki noted how the case may affect upcoming cases in Hawaii and other states.

As such cases arise, I’ve become more hopeful about the status of our planet. It’s important to remember how youth and adults alike can have power over the direction of our government.

Talking to a Scientist: Raising Awareness on Important Topics in Polar Science by Alina Mundankel, student at Clarkstown High School South 
Polar science is an ever growing field that plays a vital role in predicting the future impacts of climate change on a global scale. Researchers in this field endure numerous obstacles to gather information on ice sheets, polar ecology, sea level rise and other topics. As the poles continue to undergo rapid transformations due to rising temperatures, understanding the broader implications and the impact these regions have on people is the first step toward addressing climate change. 

The program this summer dedicated a portion of its time to conducting interviews of multiple scientists at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. We interviewed researchers from projects that included GreenDrill,  GRate, Greenland Lakes and Greenland Rising, along with college undergrads participating in summer research projects at Lamont. Through these interviews, we were able to get firsthand accounts of exciting fieldwork experiences, challenging and rewarding moments throughout the scientists’ careers, and advice for students interested in polar science. We broke our interviews into individual “Scientist Spotlight” videos and short compilation videos on topics that we found important, like what one can do to fight climate change.

One ‘Scientist Spotlight’ interview was with Nicolás Young,  a scientist who is part of both the GreenDrill and the GRate projects. He explained that both focus on fieldwork and modeling to explore the history of the Greenland Ice Sheet at different time scales. We learned in several interviews that polar scientists require a lot of preparation and the ability to work in harsh environments. Nicolás noted, “When you work in the Arctic, nothing ever goes how you think it is going to go.” He added, ‘You are almost guaranteed to lose weight, because the body burns so many calories trying to keep itself warm!’  

Our scientist compilation video, “Advice for Future Scientists, presents a variety of career pathways into polar science, as shared through our interviews. We learned that one’s interest in a topic can start from various experiences: an internship, a high-school class, a research project. The scientists told us that it’s important to choose your career with an open mind and, most importantly, to follow your heart.

One common message they had was that the polar regions are changing at rates like never before. Over the past 40-some years, the Arctic has warmed nearly four times faster than the rest of the world. Although we are not heavily impacted by these changes now, it will affect on our children and grandchildren.

One of our goals this summer was to find ways to amplify this message to our local communities and education systems. Our scientist interview videos could be used to spread awareness and educate people on how they might help mitigate the impacts of climate change. Whether it’s through small individual changes like consuming less or creating a more sustainable diet, or by voting, every person can do their part to slow the rate of climate change. My participation in this program allowed me to not only further my knowledge of polar science and meet numerous scientists, but also to get others involved.

Banner featuring a collage of extreme heat images.

Recent record-breaking heat waves have affected communities across the world. The Extreme Heat Workshop will bring together researchers and practitioners to advance the state of knowledge, identify community needs, and develop a framework for evaluating risks with a focus on climate justice. Register by June 15

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