Tag Archives: climate

Conservation & Environment: Do species suffer from poor communication?

Today’s post falls under my Conservation & Environment Series. And no, it doesn’t refer to chipmunks that need hearing aids or a Canada Goose couple that just don’t seem to understand each other.  I’m referring to the impacts, on nature and the environment, of perpetuating mis-information.

It’s an issue that’s been gnawing at me for a while and so I finally had to write about it – get it off my chest and toss it out there for discussion.

At the real heart of the issue is how we, as scientists, are not very good at communicating science to the general public and as a result, the public ends up mis-informed. That mis-information can hurt the environment. That’s the crux of it.

My angst about the issue began when I attended a photography presentation this past winter by a local photographer, Michelle Vallberg. She had made several trips to the Canadian arctic, photographing its stunning landscapes and wildlife. She was exhibiting some of her images and also gave a fabulous presentation, showcasing many of her images. She stated up front that she was not a biologist and that these were simply her observations and experiences. But it was clear she had a decent grasp of the basic biology of arctic ecosystems and some of the environmental issues facing our arctic regions. Her photos were stunning and I would have been happy to have walked a mile in her shoes. 🙂

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After the presentation, she entertained questions and comments. Someone in the audience asked her about polar bears. He wanted to know if she had encountered lots of polar bears during her trips. The short answer was yes. And in fact, Michelle elaborated by saying that the locals (primarily Inuit people) in some of the areas she visited had actually noticed that they were seeing and encountering considerably more polar bears in and around their communities in recent years.

I don’t doubt that observation for a second. The Inuit, as people who live off the land, know their land intimately. They know about the plants and animals and what is happening to them as global climate change occurs. They are very connected with their surrounding environment. That locals in these northern regions are encountering more bears is not something that I would question.

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What bothered me was the comment that ensued. In response to the statement about local Inuit encountering more bears, someone from the audience responded that maybe polar bears are not threatened by climate change. Maybe polar bear numbers are increasing. Hey, if Inuit are seeing more bears, there must be more bears out there than there were before. As a biologist, alarm bells sounded for me immediately.

Just because the locals are encountering more bears does not mean that polar bear populations are increasing. In science, the reason why we do experiments is to try to understand what is causing some pattern – what is the explanation for the observations we have recorded because an observation on its own does not tell you anything about its cause. I’m not for a minute saying that we need to start experimenting on polar bear populations. Not only would that be completely inappropriate, but it also is utterly infeasible! My point here is that just because locals are seeing more bears doesn’t mean that bear populations are increasing.

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The comment that maybe polar bears are increasing in numbers alarmed me enough that I just had to speak up. And so I made a comment in response –  that more sightings and encounters around the local villages does not mean polar bear populations are increasing. It simply means that bears are being observed and encountered more frequently by the people in the area. We can’t say anything about the cause of the increased sightings.

I just couldn’t let the audience believe that more sightings meant polar bear populations are increasing and that this whole issue of population declines of bears due to climate change is bunk.  I didn’t want a roomful of people going home and thinking, Hey, tonight I found out that global climate change isn’t killing polar bears and that in fact, maybe it’s helping them. There was no way I could let people leave thinking that.

So, I offered up an alternative explanation. Maybe locals are seeing and encountering more bears because of the effects of global climate change on their environment. Maybe local bear populations are declining, but that local Inuit are seeing more bears because bears are on the move, looking for food. Sadly, we already know from the many years that the garbage dump existed in Churchill, Manitoba, that polar bears will gladly munch on human garbage. Tour operators in Churchill used to take their clients to the local dump, just so that they could see polar bears.

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Let’s just entertain the following hypothesis: what if local polar bear populations are in fact declining because climate change is affecting availability of sea ice (which polar bears need for hunting), making it harder for bears to hunt seals(their main food source)? If this were true, then maybe bears are venturing into local villages more frequently, in search of food because they are hungry, because they are having problems getting enough food in the wild. This is just an hypothesis; I’m not saying conclusively that this is the case. What I’m pointing out is that we could have a completely opposite explanation for the same observation.

After I made my comment one fellow in the audience said (to paraphrase) that what I was saying was crap and that environmentalists were trying to pull the wool over our eyes and that scientists had no clue what’s happening to polar bears in the wild. He wasn’t timid in sharing his opinion.

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That worries me. Its’ true that we need more data to better understand what’s happening to wild polar bears. I’m not an expert on polar bears. But I am a biologist and I used to teach population biology. I know that we need more data to get a clearer picture of what’s happening to wild polar bears. But I also know that we have to be careful about the conclusions we draw based on observations. All the scientific literature I have read (field studies investigating changes in the amount of arctic sea ice, polar bear survival and birth rates and population sizes as well as modelling studies predicting bear population sizes at the end of the century) indicate that there is a general trend toward decreased sea ice in the arctic and that many polar bear populations are in decline. Polar bears need sea ice for hunting seals and for resting. My point is that yes, we are still learning about how climate change is affecting polar bears. But when people jump to conclusions and pass it on to others as if it was fact, I think it has big potential do damage.

Mis-information can be dangerous. I wonder how many people went home from the presentation that night, thinking that polar bear populations are not in peril? How many went home thinking that the concern over global climate change is overblown? Listening to people mingle and discuss, after the presentation, I surprised by how many echoed that polar bears must be doing just fine if the Inuit are encountering more of them. After all, they just saw a lot of gorgeous images of polar bears. There must be tons of them up there!

I wished I had asked some of them, what if you’re wrong. What if you think polar bears are fine, global climate change is bunk and so we do nothing about it? And what if we end up with conclusive evidence that shows that bears are declining due to climate change. What then? We should have acted, but we didn’t. That’s a high cost to pay.

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This brings me back to my initial point, my general concern that as scientists, we need to do a much better job of informing the public about the results of our research. We need to make that information both accessible and palatable, putting it in a form that the general public can understand. If we leave it up to the media to get the word out, we know the mis-information will continue. That’s not a pot-shot at the media. What I’m getting at is that when we play the ‘telephone game’ (remember that from grade school? Where your teacher whispered something into the ear of the first student in the line and each student had to convey that information to the person next to them, on down the line. We all know what happens. The version of the message that the last student got is vastly different from the message told to the first student), we risk conveying mis-information. I think we have the same problem in science. Because we too often rely on non-scientists to interpret information and package it for consumption by the general public, we risk creating mis-information. I see it all the time in the media and it makes me cringe.

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In the past I think we, as scientists, have collectively done a really lousy job of conveying science to the public. But I do think it’s getting better. We still have a long way to go. We need more scientists with excellent communication skills talking to the public. We need more scientists working directly with communication specialists to put the results of research into a form that the average person can understand. We need to ensure that information gets conveyed to the public in a way that they can understand it, but at the same time, ensure that the information is accurate. We need to avoid the ‘telephone game’.  And this doesn’t just apply to environmental issues. It’s rampant in the medical field too. How many of us have heard on the news that drinking red wine is bad for our health. But then a few years later, we hear about a study that says drinking red wine is actually good for our health! No wonder people are confused…

A while ago I came across a new programme at Sir Sandford Flemming College here in Ontario. The programme is called Environmental Visual Communication and its focus it to teach students with a science background how to use the tools of communication (photography, video, graphic design, etc) and how to develop communication skills and use them to convey conservation and environmental issues to the public. That’s brilliant, in my books! And long, long overdue. The students in this programme bring me hope.

A big focus of my photographic work is visual storytelling. Using images to tell people about nature, conservation and the environment. Combining words with images to inform people, in the hopes of getting them to care about nature and environmental issues. If we can get people to care, then we can get people to act. It’s getting them to care that’s difficult. Or maybe they do care, but they can’t see how their daily actions have ramifications for our entire planet. I mean hey, I’m only one person on a huge planet with billions of other people, right? Just a drop in the bucket, so to speak. What I do doesn’t matter, does it? WRONG! What each of us does, matters.

Our actions are based on our understanding of the world around us. This means it’s critical for people to understand the world around them. Mis-information can cause us to behave in ways that harm the environment, not help it. This quote that I found recently sums it all up for me:

In the end we will conserve only what we love.

We will love only what we understand.

We will understand only what we are taught

– Baba Dioum

So  I hope we do a better job at getting people to think more critically of the information they glean from the media. I hope we do a better job of communicating science to the general public. And I hope we ensure that information gets conveyed accurately, so that people can scrutinize it and make up their own minds about an issue.

My thanks go to my good friend and polar storyteller, France Rivet at Polar Horizons, for allowing me to use some of her fabulous polar bear images for this post. Be sure to check out her website and her latest project.

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Midway – a documentary everyone should see

All of us have impacts on the earth’s environment. Simply by living our everyday lives, we leave our footprint on the earth. Some footprints are bigger than others. And even if you want your footprint to be small and take actions to reduce it, it’s still there. But  smaller is better and that’s the key.

Salvin's Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Salvin’s Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Each one of us should strive to reduce our environmental footprint. In our household, we do things to try to reduce it.  I’m not happy with the footprint of my commute to work 3 days a week. But it’s better than 5 days a week. And I drive the most economical car I can afford. It’s one step away from a go-cart and with my commute, I can’t really go any smaller. I wish I could afford a hybrid. One day. But I hope I help to make up for my commute, at least in part, by the other things I do to try to lessen my impact on our environment. I’m not criticizing anyone for their environmental footprint. We all have one. I just hope we can all do things to reduce ours individually because if each of us does, collectively, it had a big effect, in a good way.

I think many people, perhaps all of us, to some greater or lesser degree, don’t realize the impacts we have on our planet because we don’t see them in our daily lives. I think this is why changing our behaviour and habits to reduce our impacts on the environment is often difficult. As humans, we are visual creatures and we need to see what our impacts are, in order to believe they exist.

This is why documentaries that actually show us the impacts of the way we live and the daily choices we make, on the earth’s environment is so fundamentally important. I recently wrote about Jim Balog’s documentary, Chasing Ice, that shows how the world’s glaciers are crumbling at alarming rates due to global climate change. Balog’s extreme dedication to the project was because he wanted to show the world that climate change is real.

There’s another documentary coming out this year that shows us the consequences of our actions (and inactions) –  the consequences of our modern lifestyles in developed nations. I’ve seen the trailer for this one and I think it’s a great example of showing us environmental impacts that we didn’t even think we had. You know, the out of sight, out of mind thing we humans are so good at.  Chris Jordan’s film, Midway, brings an important issue into focus.

His documentary is about Midway Island in the Pacific. Yes, the Midway Island, where a famous WW II battle took place. But Jordan’s film has little to do with Midway’s historical significance. Instead, here’s what his film is about:

“The Journey

Midway Atoll, one of the most remote islands on earth, is a kaleidoscope of geography, culture, human history, and natural wonder. It also serves as a lens into one of the most profound and symbolic environmental tragedies of our time: the deaths by starvation of thousands of albatrosses who mistake floating plastic trash for food.

The images are iconic. The horror, absolute. Our goal, however, is to look beyond the grief and the tragedy. It is here, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, that we have the opportunity to see our world in context. On Midway, we can not deny the impact we have on the planet. Yet at the same time, we are struck by beauty of the land and the soundscape of wildlife around us, and it is here that we can see the miracle that is life on this earth. So it is with the knowledge of our impact here that we must find a way forward.” (taken from Chris Jordan’s Midway website).

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There’s a trailer for the film on Chris Jordan’s website. I strongly encourage you to watch it. Warning – it’ll probably leave a lump in your throat. But that’s a good thing. A lump in your throat can provide the motivation to change your behaviour, for all of us to change our behaviour, so that this awful situation is remedied.

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Salvin’s Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Photo taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

You don’t have to be an environmentalist, biologist, or nature-lover to understand the significance of this issue. It should affect us all, deeply enough that we change the situation. I’m not sure what the answer is. But I want to find out. I had read about the impacts of plastic and other materials on marine life. But seeing the Midway trailer really floored me. Actually, the word disgusting was what really came to mind.

Buller's Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Buller’s Mollymawk, a species of Albatross. Taken near Kaikoura, New Zealand.

Click on the thumbnail below to view the trailer on the Midway website.

Midway trailer

I don’t know when the film is scheduled for release. Sometime in 2013. When I find out, I’ll post it here as well as any links to where it will be showing. I want to see it. I hope you want to see it too.

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Filed under Birds, conservation, Conservation & Environment, Digital Photography, Nature, nature photography, Opinion, Philosophy, photography, wildlife

The Value of Conservation Photography

I just read a fantastic article by photographer, Jaymi Heimbuch, about the value of conservation photography. The motivation for the article seems to be a response to a tweet the author received stating that, “… the photographers probably have a massive carbon footprint and so are destroying the planet as they try to photograph it.” The photographers referred to here collectively, in the quote above, are conservation photographers.

So the complaint by this tweeter is that, in our efforts to bring issues such as habitat destruction and species extinction to the world’s attention through our inspiring photographs and visual storytelling, we as conservation photographers are ruining the planet. In other words, the end (conservation) does not justify the means (conservation photography). Heimbuch does a great job of countering that argument, showing that the end does justify the means and that in fact, compared to a lot of other kinds of photography, the environmental foot print of conservation photographers is probably less than that of others. I love that Heimbuch points out that a certain magazine sent models, photographers and all the support crew down to the antarctic simply to shoot models in bathing suits next to penguins. And what was that the tweeter was saying about the carbon footprint of photographs and ultimately, the end not justifying the means?

Have a read of Heimbuch’s article. I think she does a good job of putting the necessary perspective on the environmental foot print of conservation photographers and more importantly, highlighting the value of conservation photography.

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A Must See! James Balog’s, Chasing Ice documentary

Yesterday, I went with a friend to see James Balog’s famed documentary, Chasing Ice. It had already shown in Ottawa, but unfortunately I’d missed it. But thankfully it came back for a second showing and I made sure to see it. I just wish I’d had the time to get a bunch of people together to see it. As a scientist myself, it’s the kind of documentary I wish EVERYONE would see. The message in that documentary is stark and I think any climate change doubter would be hard-pressed to refute the visual evidence presented in Chasing Ice.

Click on the image above to visit the Chasing Ice website to see when the film is playing near you.

Click on the image above to visit the Chasing Ice website to see when the film is playing near you.

I know climate change is a very controversial topic – still. The acerbic debates over the existence of climate change seem to have died down. The number of scientist speaking out against the data, saying that climate change is bunk, has dwindled from a vocal minority to nearly none. I think the debate has shifted away from whether climate change is real to a focus on the causes of climate change. Those are two distinct questions.

Franz Josef glacier in south island New Zealand

Franz Josef glacier in south island New Zealand

Is climate change real? I don’t think it’s possible to refute this anymore, at least not with a cogent and reasonable argument. Enough data have been amassed to show the patterns. The problem is that the average person doesn’t relate to data. If science doesn’t get packaged into a form that is understandable and digestible by the general public, then (in my view) some of the value of that science is lost. As scientists, it is our job to ensure that the public can understand the results of our research and the implications for their lives.

Glacier ice and rubble - the soil, rocks and material that get dragged along at the glacier moves.

Glacier ice and rubble – the soil, rocks and material that get dragged along at the glacier moves.

I think James Balog’s idea of letting glaciers tell the story of climate change, through still images and videos is absolutely brilliant. Most people can’t relate to statistics on changes in carbon dioxide concentrations over time. Parts per million by volume means virtually nothing to the average person. But watching a chunk of glacier bigger than Manhattan break off and roll into the ocean is something we can all relate to. The old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words still rings true.

Have a look at this trailer to Chasing Ice. See the largest glacier calving ever recorded….

Click on the image above to see the video of the largest glacier calving event ever recorded.

Click on the image above to see the video of the largest glacier calving event ever recorded.

I hear people say that they either believe or do not believe in climate change and global warming. Climate change is not about belief. It is about science. It is about data that show that it exists. Religion is about beliefs. Science is not. Science is about understanding what the data tell us – is our global climate changing. I just can’t see how people can answer no to that question anymore. I’m middle aged – old enough to look back on the climate in the city I grew up in – Ottawa, Ontario, Canada – and tell you that the climate here now is different then it was 40-some years ago. Yes, the changes have happened within my lifetime.

Vibrant blue of glacier ice at Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

Vibrant blue of glacier ice at Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

I think the bigger debate now is about the causes of climate change. Data have shown that the earth naturally goes through periods of climate change. Temperature and carbon dioxide concentration are highly positively correlated – in other words, they are tightly linked. As one goes up, so does the other. As one goes down, so does the other.

But the tools of science have allowed for the sampling of the earth’s atmosphere through the study of ice cores. An ice core is much like a tree ring. It captures changes over time. Where the width of a tree ring can tell us about the growing conditions during a given year, sampling the air bubbles trapped in an ice core can tell us about the nature of the earth’s atmosphere hundreds of thousands of years ago. But what the data show, is that since the Industrial Revolution, global carbon dioxide concentrations have spiked. Over the past 400,ooo years of the earth’s history, carbon dioxide concentrations have repeatedly been as high as 275 parts per million by volume (ppmv). But data show that the earth is currently far above that concentration and is on track to reach 400 ppmv, nearly double that of the natural cycles in the earth’s history. And when did this spike in carbon dioxide concentrations begin? It coincides with the Industrial Revolution.

Click on the thumbnail below to read about the data…

Chasing Ice data page

There are people who will argue that a correlation between the onset of the Industrial Revolution and the onset of rapid changes in carbon dioxide concentrations on earth are just that – correlations – and that one cannot attribute cause and effect through correlation. This is true. Correlation does not reveal definitive causation. This is why science relies on multiple lines of evidence – it’s like putting pieces of a puzzle together. In my view, we have enough pieces of the puzzle to tell us that global climate change is occurring and that humans have played a role in it.

Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

Franz Josef glacier in New Zealand

Even for those who don’t accept the data – wouldn’t it be prudent to take actions to do what we can now, to curb carbon dioxide increases while we can? Does it make sense to wait until it’s too late to do something and then say, “oops, we were wrong, humans have played a significant role in changing the earth’s climate”?

If your carbon monoxide detector in your house started sounding you could hypothesize that it is sounding because of a fault in the device or that it is sounding because carbon monoxide levels in your house have reached a dangerous level. In that situation, would you not get family out of the house immediately – assume carbon dioxide is at dangerous levels that can kill quickly – get them to safety, rather than assume that the detector is malfunctioning and that it is giving you a false positive? The consequences to you and your family are too dire to assume the alarm is a false alarm. Carbon monoxide is odourless, tasteless and colourless – you can’t smell, taste or see it. So in those ways, it isn’t tangible. But it’s effects are – it can kill quickly.

How is global change any different from the analogy of your home carbon monoxide detector? Isn’t it prudent to act now and not assume that this is a false alarm? The difference between global climate change and the carbon monoxide example above is scale – temporal scale as we call it in science. In layman’s terms  – time. We can relate to the immediacy of the carbon monoxide situation. But for changes in global climate that occur over decades and the geographic scale of the entire globe, humans have difficulty relating to this scale – to changes over decades and over the entire globe. We relate far more easily to the scale of minutes and so our own surroundings; it’s just part of being human. But as humans, we also have the unique ability of foresight…

Now is the time to think of the consequences of our inaction. You may or may not experience catastrophic consequences of global climate change, depending on how old you are now and where you live.  But what kind of world do you want to leave for your kids, your grandkids, and great-grandkids? I think that is something we can all relate to – how our actions as a society will alter life for our kids and grandkids.

The consequences of being wrong about the causes of global climate change are too great not to do anything about it. I think the only ethical choice is to accept that human are having a very significant impact on global climate and to do something about it before we are past the point of doing anything except leaving our kids one hell of an environmental mess to mop up, courtesy of our current, short-sighted behaviour. I’m not saying it’s easy.  If it were easy, we’d already be well on our way to solving the problem. I think the key now is to identify ways that society can change its behaviour to reduce human impacts on the global environment. But change starts one person at a time….

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Not everyone will agree on the causes of global climate change. But  see Chasing Ice. A picture really is worth a thousand words.

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