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Professor, Youths Track Climate Change Globally

Posted: Jan 10, 2012

The human race has been considered a race of hunter–gatherers. Groups that lived inland hunted wild animals and when the opportunity presented itself, they fished in lakes and rivers. Alternatively, groups that lived by a coast relied far more heavily on fish from the ocean, naturally leading to the formation of villages near rivers that led to oceans to maintain a food supply.

In America, climate change is commonly, and simply, viewed as hot summers and cold winters. However, for some groups that have maintained the hunter–gatherer lifestyle, climate change is potentially devastating.

Western Washington University professor Lauren McClanahan recently experienced the effects of climate change in Alaska, Mongolia, and Sri Lanka first-hand.


“One of my former students at Western got a job up in Alaska. She was on Nunivak Island in a tiny town called Mekoryuk. […] She invited me to come up and visit the school she was teaching at, and when I got there, I wondered, ‘Why are all the buildings crooked? Why are all the boardwalks wavy?’ ”

McClanahan’s former student revealed that the permafrost that the boardwalks and buildings were built on was melting for the first time, causing structural damage to the town.

While in Mekoryuk, McClanahan began a project that would take her further than she ever imagined. “I’m a real strong believer in inviting student voice into the curriculum, and I like to do that, obviously, through writing because I’m an English major at heart. So I got the kids writing about these changes that the warming climate was having on their village, and then we got the idea, ‘a picture is worth a thousand words,’ so why don’t we ‘art’ this up a little bit and include pictures with the writing that the students are doing? Then we took it a step further and thought, ‘Well, as long as we’ve got pictures, let’s go ahead and do some multimedia.’ ”

McClanahan began making audio and video recordings around Mekoryuk, focusing primarily on the effects of climate change on the small town. It wasn’t long before her class project inspired her to work with more communities in the Lower Kuskokwin region of Alaska.

“I sent out an e-mail to all the principals in the Lower Kuskokwim School District. Right away, I got a response from Walter Betz. He invited me to come to his school and work with his kids, and at the same time, one of my student-teachers in Western wanted a rural student teaching experience.”

It just so happened that McClanahan’s student received an opportunity to teach at Kwigillingok School, the same school that Betz was the principal of. McClanahan took the trip.

It was in Kwigillingok where McClanahan met three teenagers, Kira, Adrianna, and Corey, who would help her to create her first multimedia outreach to educate others about the devastating effects of climate change on other regions of the world.

She was particularly taken with Corey’s connection to his surroundings and his culture’s connection to nature. “Corey, […] he kept saying ‘Let them understand that what they do down where they live has a direct impact on us, up here, where we live.’ ”

The culmination of McClanahan’s time in Alaska included numerous photos and a multimedia video, with quotes from the teenagers and images from their hometown. The video can be found on YouTube.
In the video, the three teenagers are heard giving their opinions on some of the events they’ve noticed regarding climate change in their tiny fishing village. Corey’s words are a reality that he and his culture must face.

“The world is changing. It’s getting warmer and warmer. Ice is melting everywhere, even underground. The melting of the permafrost causes hills, houses, and other buildings to sink. Permafrost is a section in the ground where everything is frozen. It melts and refreezes around the year, but lately, there’s been more melt than freeze. … If we don’t do something, we could lose this beautiful land that we’ve lived in for thousands of years, forever.”

Many scientists support these concerns.

“We’re talking about carbon that’s in soil, just like in your garden where there’s compost containing carbon slowly breaking down. But in permafrost, it’s almost stopped because the soil is frozen,” said ecologist Edward Schuur, from the University of Florida, who recently headed a study that found an alarming increase in the rates of melting permafrost.

“As that soil warms up, that carbon can be broken down by bacteria and fungi, and as they metabolize, they are releasing carbon and methane, greenhouse gases that cause warmer temperatures.”

Sri Lanka and Mongolia

Following the eye-opening trip to Alaska, McClanahan decided to expand her project to other regions.
“I have a friend who works at an international school, so I got hooked into the Sri Lanka trip and [as for] Mongolia, Bellingham just became sister cities with Tsetserleg, Mongolia.”

McClanahan first traveled to a small town in Sri Lanka called Hikkaduwa, where a warm and welcoming climate exists year long.

Due to the humidity and high temperatures of Sri Lanka, the land meets very different climate change problems than those in Alaska.

“They still haven’t recovered from the tsunami that hit back in 2004. There were still storefronts that were abandoned and just, you know, just rubble everywhere. … They had hundreds of people who died.”

The problems for Sri Lanka don’t end there. The average temperature in Sri Lanka has risen about two degrees centigrade over the last 40 years.

“Already there are early signs of the impact, which would assume serious proportions by 2025,” Professor Mohan Munasinghe, vice-chairman of the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said in an interview with the Inter Press Service. “But unfortunately if the developed world doesn’t do anything to mitigate the impact, there’s little Sri Lanka can do.”
In Mongolia, McClanahan learned something unexpected. “The kids told me about this phenomenon called zud. […] It’s a phenomenon where the winters are so cold and the snow is compacted so hard that the livestock can’t root through to the grass and eat, and there’s mass die-offs of livestock, which is particularly harmful for nomadic families because they depend on their livestock for everything.”

While zud has always existed in Mongolia, the past dozen years have seen not just the worst zud in 30 years, but several that have crippled livestock and killed more than 50 million animals. There is growing concern that the culprit for the increase in zud occurrences could be due to climate change in the region.
That’s not the only climate-related problem faced by Mongolians that McClanahan noticed.

“The second thing is water. Their drought is becoming an issue in central Mongolia, and the streams and the rivers that I saw — not only were they not moving as fast as they should be — they were so polluted. Plastic bottles are the main instigators. There are plastic bottles everywhere.”

Pollution, McClanahan argued, is an example of how humans can adversely affect their environment, damaging the natural flow of rivers and wildlife.

McClanahan’s argument is not whether humans could or should control climate change, but rather that humans have impacted it and need to see whether that impact is for the better or for the worse. (end)

To view the video McClanahan made with students, visit www.youtube.com/watch?v=T4qPa2xIU4o. For more information about the Blue Sky Project, read next week’s issue of Northwest Asian Weekly.

Jeffrey Osborn can be reached at info@nwasianweekly.com.

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