Before stepping out the front door of the Museum on a recent evening, I pull on my serious down parka and snap the fur-trimmed hood snug under my chin. Bill Fitzhugh, Director of the Arctic Studies Center, looks at me like I’m from another planet and says, “15 degrees isn’t that cold! If you were in Ulaan Baator now you wouldn’t be able to breathe.” Not being able to breathe is an exaggeration, but I got the point, thinking, “That is exactly why I am not in Ulaan Baator in February.”
I say, “Give me a hot desert any day.”
I will take my chances with sunburn and dehydration in the Gobi over frostbite in the Arctic Circle. Sure, I know 15° F isn’t very cold. In Washington we do get temperatures like this from time-to-time, although probably less so in the future.
I’m also sure that Bill Fitzhugh is better adapted to the cold than I am. In his research, he camps with the reindeer herders in Russia and Mongolia, excavates European contact sites in Frobisher Bay north of Hudson Strait, and dives in Hare Harbor on Quebec’s North Shore. Bill specializes in the study of cold places, Vikings, Inuit, and the Mongol Empire.
We have been colleagues for decades and have traveled in Mongolia, attended some of the same conferences, and sat at the same tables in countless meetings here at the Museum. The irony of my aversion to extreme cold is that the northern ice is melting and the Arctic is becoming warmer more quickly than other parts of the globe. And as part of a 4-year NSF grant, I am a member of a research team that is developing computer simulations of the ways social and climate systems interact. Last year the project received supplemental funding to include the Arctic. Bill’s experience and that of the other members of the Arctic Studies Center, especially Laura Fleming, Igor Krupnik, and Stephen Loring have become critical links for this research project. Our current efforts are focused on both the Boreal and Arctic regions through a simulation called NorthLands.
For me the experiences of 15° F in Washington, indigenous ways of life in the Arctic, and the travels of European explorers are directly connected and now linked even further through a modern high-tech way of building simulated worlds to find connections and their implications. The current evidence for climate change motivates us to seek better and more realistic ways of coping. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently released a report focused on the state of knowledge about managing risks and adapting to climate change. One of the case studies was drawn from the Canadian far north. We need to know how the risks will affect the lives of people who call those regions home, not to mention the fact that what happens in the Arctic has implications for us all.
The NorthLands model has 4 major components: climate, biogeography, social systems (including government), and infrastructure (roads, buildings, airports, etc.). The model is currently under construction at George Mason University’s Center for Social Complexity, using the MASON simulation toolkit. We think we can make a unique contribution by developing a simulation that replicates the dynamics of very complex socionatural interactions, on a very large scale. Once NorthLands is fully functional, we can adjust different components and study the effects to analyze alternative scenarios. We then compare the results against what we know about the real world. Does NorthLands give us new insights? Here are some of the questions we hope the NorthLands model will help us get closer to answering:
- What are the principal criteria for successful adaptation? What resources will be required?
- What kinds of collective action will be needed for successful adaptation? How important are governmental policies?
- Is our adaptive capacity sufficient for the given challenges? Will we need new technologies?
- Are extreme weather and abrupt changes likely to exceed our capacity to adapt in some regions?
The experience of climate change isn’t just gradual rising temperatures. It is not as if every day is just slightly warmer; the change isn’t linear. There is an upward trend, but jagged ups and downs is probably a better way to describe the process as we experience it through increased variation in weather. Climate change is sometimes about more extreme and unusual weather, and even abrupt changes. Climate is complicated and even chaotic, but that doesn’t mean we cannot interpret the trends and sort out the implications for the ways we live on this planet.
In a future blog I will take a closer look at the word “adaptation” and the many ways it is used to describe the potentials of our future.
By: Dr. J. Daniel Rogers