The Arctic and its role in the climate crisis: An online school project

Introductory slide to the course to show the attendants who we are (Credits: Slide & Pictures from Johanna Hingst & Franziska Tell; Background Image from Simon Wett).

Schools are closed in Germany, outreach projects and workshops are cancelled – does this mean that there is no possibility for us as scientists to reach out to the public and educate young people about our planet and the Arctic?

Luckily not: We just had the chance to discover that even in those times of the pandemic, it is possible to get in touch with people, with children, who are eager to learn about climate science and the climate crisis. In the framework of a German online school project called Digitale Drehtür (Digital Revolving Door)Corona School, we – Johanna and Franziska, two German ArcTrain PhDs – gave a 90 minutes introductory course to the Arctic and climate change to a group of 19 pupils at the age of 14 to 18 years.

How is ‘the Arctic’ defined – where does it start, where does it end?
How many people live there?
Why is it so cold in the Arctic ocean?
Why is the ice so important? And why the ocean?
What kinds of animals and plants can resist the cold and dark winter?
How is climate change affecting the Arctic? And how is the Arctic affecting climate change?

Schematic drawing on the climate crisis in the Arctic done by the workshop participants – with a perfect visualization of the albedo effect as we know it from graphics in the literature. Further stated effects: rising sea level, release of methane, melting and break-up of glaciers and sea ice (Credits: background drawing by Franziska Tell, added drawings & texts by course participants).

We could prolong this list forever – because there are so many aspects about the Arctic to discover. In our online workshop, we tried to touch all those questions. And as the best way to learn is to discover things on your own, we let the attendees think about what they already know about the Arctic. Divided into four groups, the kids started scribbling and writing into the schematic drawing and maps we gave them. Within their breakout-rooms, they discussed their thoughts and ideas and added more and more content to their overview on Geography, Society & Economy;  Ocean, Ice & Atmosphere; Living beings & Plants and The climate crisis in the Arctic.

20 Minutes later, amazing graphics and maps were presented. And actually, we have to admit that we were surprised about how educated these kids were about different aspects of the Arctic! Was it the July 10°C isotherm as one possible border of the Arctic [an imaginary line describing the southern boundary of the Arctic; north of it long-term average temperatures for July are below 10°C],  the albedo effect causing even stronger warming once the sea ice starts melting [white surfaces like snow and ice reflect sunlight strongly, while dark surfaces like ocean water absorb the light and thus more energy] or many more: The kids explained to each other so many features that are important for understanding the Arctic and the climate crisis that we were amazed.

Within the second part of the workshop, we gave them the chance to benefit from our expertise as scientists in the field of climate and Arctic sciences: They could ask anything they wanted to know about the Arctic and the climate crisis, and we tried our best to answer their questions. We talked about animals and ecosystems, about melting ice and ocean current systems.

But the probably most remarkable questions that got stuck in our mind were the last two we discussed:

Is it still possible to save the Arctic from a total meltdown?

And what can each of us do to help stop the ongoing changes?

Schematic drawing on animals in the Arctic showing a huge variety – walrus, killer whale, seals, fish a puffin and more (Credits: background drawing by Franziska Tell, added drawings & texts by course participants).

These questions show that the young generation really understands what is important these days. They know that a changing climate is not just a small process, but a big threat, especially to a fragile system as the Arctic. They see that something needs to be done – and they have the will to do so.

Our answers to the questions? To the first one, it was a clear ‘We don’t know – but we know that it depends on us.’ Yes, if we start getting active against climate change, if we stop emitting greenhouse gases and polluting our environment, if we manage to stick to the 1.5°C goal from Paris, we might be able to “save the Arctic” – or at least slow down the running processes to preserve some of the Arctics unique characteristics. But we also know that change is already there, and it will not be the same as it has been in the past decades.

The answer to the second question was a bit easier, and also a little less depressing. We talked about our own behavior and its influence on the environment. And then stressed that to stop the drastic climate changes, something bigger than that is needed. Politics and society need to change. Sooner rather than later. And everyone can contribute to this by showing their own opinion, in the context of movements like Fridays for Future – and we also told the group that we know that many of them are already very active there  –, in the context of politics and elections, and in every occasion to talk to other people.

You see, our workshop ended with an interesting discussion and thoughts we might all dwell on the next time. And this is very good. Because it shows us once more that it is not only important that we as scientists contribute to understanding the complex system of the Arctic and its climate better, but also need to help in educating the public about this. Because whatever you understand, you will care about more.

We are very, very glad about the interesting discussions and discoveries we had together with the group. And as there were still a lot of open thoughts and questions, and there is a variety of scientists in the group of ArcTrain studying so many different parts of the Arctic, we are really looking forward to continue giving such courses in various formats in the future. Because we won’t let a virus stop us from reaching out to everyone who wants to know more about the Arctic – following the slogan from the corona school: Exchange knowledge, not viruses!

Franziska Tell

About Franziska Tell

PhD student from the 3rd ArcTrain cohort, working on planktonic foraminifera and the carbon cycle in the Arctic Ocean. @GruenEisBaer on twitter & instagram

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