When Victoria Herrmann interviewed people living in climate-affected coastal communities across the U.S. and U.S. Territories, she was expecting the most common concern to be safeguarding infrastructure. In one of her first interviews, she and her research partner, Eli Keene, visited the American Samoan island of Aunu’u and learned that saltwater was inching closer to the local community's taro crop and seeping into the soil. She was surprised, however, when local leader Peter Taliva moved past the effect that this would have on food security and focused more on the cultural impact.
“Having these culturally important plants be accessible is a key part of passing down knowledge,” Herrmann says. “Their culture and links from one generation to the next were being threatened by saltwater intrusion.”
This was not an isolated story, but something that was repeated in every community they visited, from Alaska to Mississippi. Local leaders everywhere were concerned about how climate change impacted their culture and identity, in addition to more tangible, physical impacts. These findings informed the rest of the project, America’s Eroding Edges, leading her to partner with The National Trust for Historic Preservation to examine how climate change is, at its core, a story about losing the things that make us who we are.
In a direct response to these communities’ needs, Herrmann created the program Rise Up to Rising Tides, which connects climate-affected communities to volunteer experts who can help them. This allows people from any profession to bring their unique talents and skills to address the wide variety of problems associated with climate change.
The experience taught her something very valuable about the human dimensions of climate research. While she recognizes the critical importance of the data, graphs, and thousand-page reports (they are, after all, the foundation upon which informed decisions are made), Herrmann wants to make sure that scientists connect their work to the humans who will read what they have produced.
The human dimension of science has always motivated Herrmann. Her grandparents were Holocaust survivors, and she explains that “nearly every branch of [her] family tree was exterminated because the world was silent.” This influenced her to study human rights in college. When she learned more about climate change, however, she realized that it was the biggest human rights catastrophe of her generation and likely every generation after hers.
As an undergraduate, she majored in both international relations and art history. Studying the humanities and the social sciences provided her with the tools to address issues that threaten humanity and work on solutions that span different generations, countries and cultures. Herrmann later earned her Ph.D. in geography, a “magical discipline” that brought together natural sciences, social sciences and humanities.
Her emphasis on human rights and interdisciplinary work was in part what led her to become interested in The Arctic Institute, where she currently serves as director. The organization’s mission emphasizes Arctic justice, sustainability, and security, which are all interconnected.
One of Herrmann’s major areas of research, climate change’s impacts on migration and displacement, is perhaps the most pressing issue for the Arctic right now. Communities across coastlines and on permafrost face a real threat of displacement from their homelands. This is especially true for indigenous communities, who have already been forced to be resilient to colonialism and discriminatory economic, social and political policies. For these groups, displacement isn’t a future threat, it’s an everyday mental health and logistical crisis.
Another pressing concern of The Arctic Institute is uplifting and empowering youth in the Arctic. The Arctic Institute provides youth leaders with opportunities to engage in virtual school to learn about Arctic policy, to participate in professional development conferences, and to have their work featured in an ongoing youth series. The Arctic Institute also partners with The Arctic Youth Network, a youth-founded and youth-led network that spans the Arctic and focuses on empowerment and international cooperation.
Herrmann also supports youth in STEM as a AAAS IF/THEN Ambassador, serving as a role model and point of engagement for young women who are interested in STEM. One of her major projects through IF/THEN is creating a magazine that focuses on Arctic girls in STEM, highlighting the future of science led by young women across the Arctic.
A testament to her commitment to creating communities and starting conversations across borders beyond her role as an IF/THEN Ambassador, she is also the principal investigator of the Migration in Harmony research coordination network. This network, funded by the National Science Foundation, connects a range of people, from traditional knowledge holders to scientists to educators, and facilitates the discussion of research gaps and informed decision making. They are currently mapping out migration research and building cross-disciplinary teams, hoping to better inform local decisionmakers on how to best prepare their communities for all this movement.
This research network represents a critical step for translating research into action. “The end goal of science and research is not to have your results on a bookshelf to collect dust, it’s to help inform decisionmakers on many levels to prepare to take on the future,” Herrmann notes. Joining the network provides access to webinars, virtual schools and workshops that help achieve this goal.
“It’s worth thinking about how to connect your work, research, outreach and policy to the Arctic, to think about how to bring the North and its four million people into your classroom or grant project,” Herrmann says.
The Arctic Institute provides plenty of resources for getting started and is always looking for partners and collaborators. “The best work is done when we work together, not when we try to do everything ourselves.”