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Merritt Turetsky Co-Creates Solutions with Northern Communities Facing Climate Change Now

Merritt Turetsky processes a permafrost peat core from a burned area in the Northwest Territories.
Merritt Turetsky processes a permafrost peat core that was augered from a burned area in the Northwest Territories.
Photo credit: Merritt Turetsky

Merritt Turetsky is a carbon cycle scientist. She studies thawing permafrost and how it affects the climate system. This is important because permafrost contains more than twice as much carbon as is currently in the atmosphere. As permafrost thaws due to climate change, it releases this carbon and thereby accelerates climate change. But Turetsky says she has come to realize she “can’t just work on carbon cycling anymore. I have to work on a variety of topics that affect Northerners,” and be part of finding solutions for those impacted by thawing permafrost.

Coming to this realization was partly the result of being a 2018-19 AAAS Leshner Public Engagement Fellow. The program inspired new ideas about what engagement could be, and this, combined with Turetsky’s own experiences, expanded who she sees as the main audience for her engagement. She had always been motivated to engage with the communities that allow her to work on their land, seeing this as a basic responsibility. However, she has watched the impacts of climate change unfold right in front of her eyes, as her field sites -- and people’s homes and livelihoods -- change drastically from year to year.

So Turetsky extended her focus to include not just the communities she directly works with, but others as well. She talks with Northerners to identify adaptation and mitigation measures that will work for them, and tries to bring in other scientists and engineers who can help them implement these measures. She contributed to developing a new network of researchers and stakeholders studying and interested in permafrost in Canada, where she is currently based as an associate professor and research chair in the Department of Integrative Biology at the University of Guelph (she’s also part of the international Permafrost Carbon Network).

Turetsky is motivated to engage with Northern communities because of the benefits it brings to her science. This past year, her research team was involved in “On the Land” camps as a type of participatory research, in which scientists and community members collaboratively built maps of permafrost and other aspects of the changing landscape. Satellite maps often don’t show as much detail as scientists would like, so they sometimes ask locals about the specifics of what they are seeing, since they traverse that land more frequently. Other times, community members may mention a significant change from the previous year, such as the sudden disappearance of a lake they used to fish at every year. Alerted to this, scientists may then investigate the site further to add to their collective knowledge.

Because the Arctic is an iconic symbol of climate change, Turetsky has worked with six documentary film teams just this past year. She has found herself to be fairly comfortable on live television, so has taken advantage of this by appearing in numerous media interviews. In addition to working on the documentary films, however, she wants to do engagement that addresses issues closer to home for most people. She piloted a live television series focusing on the process of science, to help people understand “how science actually gets done,” and she plans to resurrect this in some way when she arrives at the University of Colorado, Boulder as the new director of the Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research in January 2020.

She also wants to make use of her new position and the lessons her cohort of Leshner fellows has shared with each other about changes in promotion and tenure that can promote public engagement. “If funding bodies want research to matter more, we need to reward academics who are taking the time to build relationships,” Turetsky says. If there’s one main lesson she took away from her Arctic experience, it is that “crossing cultures and languages takes time… These are real relationships that need to be built on trust, and that takes time, investment and both giving and taking. The scientists who are investing in collaborative research are learning that research can be more fulfilling and richer when we engage communities and other stakeholders. We are learning to listen and benefit from local knowledge holders. This needs to be rewarded by the scientific system.” 

The AAAS Leshner Leadership Institute was founded in 2015 and operates through philanthropic gifts in honor of CEO Emeritus Alan I. Leshner. Each year the Institute provides public engagement training and support to a group of mid-career scientists from an area of research at the nexus of science and society. Merritt Turetsky is part of the 2018-19 food and water security cohort. The 2019-20 cohort is focused on human augmentation, and the 2020-21 cohort (to be announced in February 2020) on artificial intelligence.