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Arctic Scientist Matthew Druckenmiller Sees Thin Ice Ahead in Polar Regions

Matthew Druckenmiller.
Matthew Druckenmiller. Photo courtesy of CIRES (Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences).

Recent “zombie fires” found throughout the Arctic region are making headlines, not only for their frightening name, but also because they are a symptom of the alarming trend ice scientist and AAAS Member Matthew Druckenmiller is following each time he measures ice.

“It is the first time we have seen these fires this early in spring,” Druckenmiller says. “It refers to fires that have never fully gone out from the previous summer, they get covered in the snow, smolder and then in the spring when the snow melts, they reignite.”

 Climate change is a big reason why zombie fires are more common nowadays in the Arctic. This region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet, creating a cascade of changes in the global environment, including the sea ice that Druckenmiller studies. It is ice that has importance around the world. It keeps the polar regions cool and helps moderate the world’s climate. It also plays a crucial and natural role in the fight against climate change. It has a bright surface and 80 percent of the sunlight that strikes it is reflected back into space, helping to keep oceans from heating up, and Arctic temperatures from rising further.

“The type of research I do is collaborative environmental monitoring,” Druckenmiller says. “I work closely with indigenous communities to understand changes in the environment and how that impacts indigenous communities in the Arctic that rely heavily on natural resources like hunting and fishing for their livelihoods.”

Collaborations started early in his career. In 2006, while pursuing his doctoral studies at the University of Alaska in Fairbanks, Druckenmiller worked with the Iñupiat community of Utqiaġvik in the North Slope Borough Alaska along the Chukchi Sea Coast. The locals who reside in this area have been known for working with scientists as far back as after World War II.

While he doesn't spend as much time out on the sea ice as he once did, Druckenmiller annually visits the arctic to keep certain long-time sea ice thickness datasets continuing. Much of his other work today is by remote sensing and through community-based monitoring programs.

“What inspires me is using science to help communicate the day-to-day challenges of local communities that are on the frontlines of climate change,” he says. “Serving society with our science can’t be an afterthought; it must be a guiding principle when we design our research and invest in environmental observing programs.”

Druckenmiller’s view of how science can shape policy can be traced to the National Academies Polar Research Board in 2005. He spent half a year working on a study on designing an international Arctic Observing Network (AON). AON is a multi-disciplinary effort that encompasses physical, biological, and human observations.

“I became interested in how to adapt to climate change in the Arctic and saw a clear link between ’usable science’ and the types of observational networks that scientists design and deploy,” he says. Exploring this space, he emphasizes “requires becoming more conversant in policy and understanding how decisions are made within the highest levels of government.”

Druckenmiller, who was an AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) from 2013-2015, is part of a recently launched objective of AAAS' Local Science Engagement Network (LSEN) that brings scientific knowledge to policymakers to inform local and statewide challenges. 

“At the heart of the work that we aim to do within LSEN is bringing together like-minded scientists, practitioners, policymakers, and community members,” he says. He says these are people who understand the value of science, community, and the need to create spaces for respectful, equitable, fact-based, and action-oriented discussions.

Druckenmiller’s years of working in tough terrains in both the policy world and inside the Arctic has brought him to an inevitable conclusion. 

“The most inspiring realization came when I recognized that local and remote communities in the Arctic pay very close attention to the actions of policymakers, but that policymakers, in turn, understand so little about our nation’s Arctic communities and indigenous peoples,” he says. 

There are important learnings for the scientific community, says Druckenmiller. Efforts to span the boundaries between constituencies—Indigenous Peoples, scientists, and policymakers—has its challenges and benefits. Druckenmiller explains that it takes time to stay well versed in policy and the dynamic nature of policy-making realms, but it is well worth the effort.

“In my line of work, Arctic research is increasingly becoming more aware of equity within the research process, especially as it pertains to partnering with Indigenous Peoples and communities,” he says. In recent times he has noticed a change especially among the local people he works with.

Druckenmiller drilling an ice core from coastal landfast sea ice in Alaska's Chukchi Sea.
Druckenmiller drilling an ice core from coastal landfast sea ice in Alaska's Chukchi Sea. Photo by Chris Petrich.

“Indigenous partners are rightly demanding more equitable partnerships and research that is increasingly Indigenous-led and guided by self-determination,” he says.

But, his job in communicating to Indigenous people as well as the general public is not always easy.

“What scares me is the divide in how people view the problem,” he says. “Science has been politicized and that’s unfortunate. The publics' doubt in climate change has resulted from political movements that try and sow doubt.”

The polarization between people who believe the science on climate change and those that don’t often manifest in the questions that people ask Druckenmiller as well as his response.

“It happens very often that, when I get in a cab, the driver asks me what I do, even if I don’t use the word climate change and I mention that I do research in the Arctic, the question is, ‘Is climate change real?’ or ‘I don’t believe in climate change,’” he says. “I don’t see any good that comes out of this if I get angry because I have to understand that the person has formulated their opinion based on things they have read or the world they have grown up in. I understand the causes of disagreement, and you are not going to get to the origin of those causes unless you work together.”

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