Permafrost degradation is an issue of international concern with major consequences that reach far beyond the Arctic Circle. These consequences are already beginning to manifest themselves. The catastrophic Norilsk fuel spill in late May 2020 is just one of the many recent examples of how permafrost melt damages infrastructure while endangering people and the environment. Although large-scale dramatic events like this one provide an opportunity to show the public how destructive permafrost degradation can be, many scientists, journalists, and individuals writing about the subject are quick to point out that the majority of these concerns are ‘invisible’ threats. Problems such as methane emissions, the slow slumping of soil and erosion, and other consequences of permafrost melt are not readily observable or as easily sensationalized as some of the other climate related issues occurring in other regions of the world. Furthermore, although permafrost melt is an incredibly pressing problem, many people will never see or experience it personally, and they therefore have little concern about it. Throughout my years as a science communicator, I have encountered a general lack of public knowledge about what permafrost is, let alone why it should matter to us if it thaws. With such low awareness and knowledge of the issue, how does the scientific community make these ‘invisible’ threats into tangible concerns for people around the world? I suggest using the power of our own personal experiences to solve this challenging issue and emphasize the potency of storytelling as an educational tool for teaching all types of people about permafrost melt.
Teaching Through Personal Experience
When it comes to complex issues such as thawing permafrost and climate change, it is easy to overlook the value of personal experience as a teaching device. The driving forces behind our warming climate are beguiling, and a scientific specialist such as a geophysicist or a geologist could more than likely find themselves discussing the nuances of climate change until a general audience had long perished or fled from boredom. Although math and science speak compelling truths to those with the proper education to comprehend them, we cannot expect the numbers to have much of an impact on the view of the global public.
In these situations, it is imperative that one speaks through personal experience with a certain amount of emotional vulnerability. To make the ‘invisible’ threats of permafrost degradation visible, we must discuss the issue from a human perspective and using our storytelling skills. Most individuals who study science do not just understand the severity of climate change on a mathematical level, but also on an emotional level. They have seen the heavy toll of climate change with their own eyes and felt the heavy weight of its reality upon their shoulders. Scientists must always be willing to communicate at this level, using their experience and humanity as one of their most potent tools in public education.
Only after an issue becomes relatable to a person do they have the capacity or interest in learning the science to support it. When I am approached to explain permafrost degradation and why it matters, I tell the story of my first experience with permafrost in the ‘drunken forests’ of Alaska, and how both my own life and the Arctic landscape will both be forever changed by the thawing soil.
The Sobering Sight of a Drunken Forest: My First Experience with Permafrost Thaw
I had my first personal experience with thawing permafrost in spring 2018. As I was wrapping up my associate degree in geography, I made the spontaneous decision to embark on my first trip to the Arctic Circle. In previous years, my interest in the Arctic had grown from a childhood fascination into an area of major scientific interest. As an undergraduate studying climate change and physical science, the Arctic was a huge topic of discussion in my classes, and I found myself deeply and regularly contemplating this ‘strange and far away’ land. I was, at times, admittedly curious as to why I had formed this obsession for a place I had never even seen, but that didn’t stop my fascination from growing. By the end of two years at my beloved community college, I was ready to see the Arctic for myself. A cheap plane ticket was all the enticement I needed to make it happen, and on a chilly night in early April, I found myself on a redeye flight to Fairbanks, Alaska. Sprawled across an empty row of seats, I felt like scientific royalty living in a world of possibilities as we flew north into the night. I would be paying off this excursion until the near completion of my B.A. from CU Boulder two years later, but despite the consequences, I knew it would all be worth it just to see the Arctic for myself. I was unprepared, however, for how deeply this experience would both inspire and haunt me for years to come.
My first day in Fairbanks I awoke invigorated, despite the few hours of sleep I had been able to steal that morning. By mid-April, the days of Fairbanks, Alaska become quite long, and the city already is experiencing fifteen-hour days. For me, every hour of daylight felt like an opportunity to explore. I awoke that morning, got dressed, grabbed my camera, and left my hotel room ready to experience the city, Alaska, and the gateway to the American Arctic.
When visiting a new city or place, I rarely make plans about what I want to see or explore. I try to open my heart and my mind to whatever the city may have to offer, and I tend to drive or walk around with no agenda until something catches my interest. My first morning in Fairbanks was no exception, and I set out unsure of where the day would take me. My little hotel was located very close to a 2,200-acre waterfowl refuge named Creamers Field, and it was not long before it had caught my attention. Within minutes of leaving the hotel, I found myself parking my rental car and wandering one of the Refuge’s nature trails. My experience in Creamers Field would be my first encounter with the Boreal Forest, as well as the first time that I would see for myself the unsettling havoc that permafrost thaw can have upon the landscape.
I spent hours exploring the trails that day, and I would ultimately start each morning of my time in Fairbanks with a walk through Creamers Refuge. It was always incredibly peaceful. I encountered no more than a few other individuals and one very friendly dog during all my morning walks there. I was enthralled by the beauty and tranquility of the forest. I took pictures of anything that caught my eye and experimented with the blue-grey light of the cold, cloudy mornings. It did not take long before I noticed the odd, bending trees that were drooping sideways all along the trail. I remember thinking they looked like ‘rainbow trees’ and proceeded to refer to them as such to myself. With a now woeful ignorance, I found the little trees to be incredibly endearing and funny, and they became one of my favorite photographic subjects along my morning walks.
On my first walk along the trails, I simply spent my time taking photos and soaking in the scenery. My next few days on the trail, however, the geographer within me took over. I bought several identification guides and maps at the local Barnes and Noble and began to educate myself about the forest. By the end of my short time in Fairbanks, I was able to identify most of the trees along the trail as well as the birds that fluttered through their branches. Beginning with my second walk through the forest, I stopped and took the time to read the informative signs posted along the trails and talk with any friendly local willing to chat. It was over these several days that I would come to learn that these bizarre, drooping trees were not just an eccentric quirk of the forest, but an ominous sign of regional warming, degrading permafrost, and the changes that were threatening all of the world’s Boreal forests.
I came to learn both the name for these trees, as well as what caused their unique shape. A waitress at a local restaurant told me they were called ‘drunken forests,’ which is appropriate in a grimly funny way. The description is quite astute, and the warped trees do look rather drunk in comparison to their proud, upright brothers and sisters. So, what had caused their odd malformation? I was shocked and embarrassed to learn that all of the quirky ‘rainbow trees’ had bent into these positions because they were, in fact, dead: victims of our warming climate and thawing permafrost. The soil was changing, and the ancient forest that stood around Fairbanks had become inhospitable for many of the trees that had been flourishing there for years. As permafrost thaws, the soil around it erodes, sinks, and buckles, killing trees throughout the forest. As I walked, I began to realize these dead trees were everywhere. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them just in the small stretch of forest I had explored, and who knew how many others elsewhere. This realization caused the sense of humor I had once felt about the trees to give way to a gut-wrenching humiliation. My whimsical, serene walks became morose and somber, and in a matter of days I felt I had fallen in love with this beautiful place just in time to watch it perish. My first day walking the Boreal forest trail I shed a tear for its overwhelming splendor, and on my final day walking the trail I fell to my knees and wept for it in mourning. I felt my own heart bending and breaking with the birch trees. It was in this moment, alone with tears freezing upon my cheeks that cold Alaskan morning, that I decided to focus my own studies upon Arctic studies. I wanted to understand permafrost degradation on a deeper level, but more importantly, I knew I had to spread the word and help others understand it as well. I took as many pictures as my memory cards could store and flew home that evening ready to tell the story with my camera that the trees were forced to tell with their lives.
What Causes a Drunken Forest?
If I tell this story well, and especially if I have the time to show some pictures, there are almost always follow-up questions. Talking about my personal experience tends to lead directly into scientific inquiry, and people are instantly eager to know more about what causes permafrost thaw and drunken forests. A quick geology lesson is wonderful for further nurturing this curiosity, as well as giving whoever you are speaking to a slightly deeper understanding of the issue.
The relationship between Boreal forests and Arctic permafrost is ancient and variable. Throughout Earth’s history, the temperature and climate of the Arctic (as well as the entire globe) has varied, but the trees of the Boreal forests we see today have evolved within a very cold Arctic environment. These trees have adapted to a climate in which the permafrost beneath them has remained frozen for hundreds to thousands of years. Although there are a multitude of factors that cause ‘drunken forests’ to occur naturally, such as changes in the water table, increasing global temperatures are driving increased melting in the Boreal soil. This increased rate of melting is causing boreal trees to bend and buckle much faster and at a larger scale than previously observed. Boreal forests cannot withstand the extreme rate of soil erosion, sinking, and root disturbance they endure due to permafrost degradation. They eventually bend and succumb to the thawing soil, leaving their malformed remains as an eerie wake up call for those paying attention. The beautiful forests throughout the global north are falling victim to this thaw, and we are just barely beginning to understand the severity of the situation. Some of the current research involved in understanding ‘drunken forests’ are looking at the specific soil conditions that may contribute to their formation, as well as remote sensing by NASA to see how they may be contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, causing higher global temperatures and driving the melting to intensify.
By sharing my personal experiences and offering emotional vulnerability in science communication, I have been successful at invoking interest and curiosity in permafrost thaw among many different people. I encourage any person who may find themselves teaching others about seemingly abstract scientific concepts, particularly those involving climate change, to use their own experience as a way to make the concept more relatable. Using your own story, you can paint a picture that teaches someone how to care about climate change before inspiring them to understand it. It is our job as scientists to spread passion and curiosity as well as knowledge.
It does not stop there, however. These personal experiences and the scientists who share them must also work to elevate the stories and struggles of Indigenous peoples of the Arctic, who have a deep connection with the land and have been experiencing climate change firsthand for many decades. The Indigenous people of the Arctic are currently on the front lines of climate change, and Indigenous cultures, traditions, and livelihoods are directly threatened by permafrost degradation. The power of personal storytelling must also be a tool to spread the stories and knowledge of Indigenous peoples, whose experiences are invaluable in deepening the understanding of Arctic issues.
We must keep our eyes and ears open in all situations, looking for the learning lesson amidst the painful truth. In order to make a once invisible problem become visible, we must often retract the scope through which we see our own realities. Do not be afraid to teach about science with emotional honesty. As Isaac Asimov once said, “Your assumptions are your window on the world. Scrub them off every once in a while, or the light won’t come in.”