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Coronavirus Halts Arctic Climate Change Research

Climate
Scientists testing water in the Arctic for ecology research. Arnulf Husmo / Getty Images

By Alex Matthews

Every year 150 climate scientists fly far into the wilderness and bore deep into Greenland's largest glacier. Their work is complicated and important. The EastGRIP project is trying to understand how ice streams underneath the glacier are pushing vast amounts of ice into the ocean, and how this contributes to rising sea levels. But this year the drills will be silent. The ice streams will go unmeasured.


The reason is the coronavirus. The fallout from measures to contain the outbreak have made the research impossible. Greenland is closed to foreigners. Its government is worried any outbreak could be particularly dangerous to its indigenous population and rapidly overwhelm its health services.

Even if the country were open, it just isn't practical to bring an international team of scientists together, 1,000 miles (1,600 kilometers) away from the nearest airport, in case one of them is sick. The transport planes that normally fly in the teams and resupply them have also been grounded. Nobody wants to be responsible for bringing small, isolated communities into contact with the virus.

Going Without Results

The scientists are missing out on a lot. They were hoping to complete the 2,660-meter (8,727-feet) hole they have been drilling for the past five years, and finally access the ice streams they've been hunting for.

"We were actually hoping to reach the bedrock this year, which is super exciting, as we are down where the ice stream flow really is important," explains Dorthe Dahl-Jensen, Professor of Ice, Climate and Earth at the University of Copenhagen and chairperson for EastGRIP's steering committee.

"How does this ice actually flow? That really is what we have been waiting for for five years, what was going to happen this year. All of that has now been put back. We will have to live without the results."

Damaged Equipment

When the team returns next year, it's data and understanding they will have lost. Another year of snow will have buried trenches and covered equipment, meaning they will spend more time repairing and replacing buildings and hardware.

It's a problem faced by Dr Ken Mankoff and the team he works with at the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. They are examining the health of the ice sheets in Greenland and monitoring snowfall. They also have monitoring equipment in the field that could fail if they cannot reach it, leaving gaps in data that has been collected for decades.

"In the worst-case scenario there will be a 12-month gap," he says. "Some of that data can be filled in with satellites and remote sensing, other parts are unique and will be lost."

Junior Scientists' Careers Affected

Dahl-Jensen and Mankoff will have to wait until they can return to their respective sites and hope the loss of data won't upset their research too much. For now, both say they are happier remaining at home and keeping themselves, their teams and everyone else they would otherwise encounter safe.

But for younger scientists, those working on research with short-term funding, and those working towards academic qualifications on a timescale, the lack of results is a much bigger problem. The next generation of climate scientists will be affected.

"There are junior colleagues, and this will have a significant impact on their career if they cannot get the data for the project that they need to do their work," says Mankoff. "My attitude will not be shared by everybody else, and I doubt it is."

Most Productive Time of the Year

Someone who can relate is Dr Joran Moen, director of the University Center in Svalbard (UCIS) in Norway, the world's northernmost higher education institution. The school was shutdown and fieldwork cancelled, following orders from the Norwegian government. Around 70 students in Svalbard alone will be unable to complete fieldwork contributing to masters degrees or PhDs.

"The transition from March to June is a very important time for operations and for monitoring climate change in the area," he says. "We are in a part of the Arctic with a very dramatic change due to the temperature rapidly changing. It's a very good place to be to see how mankind can influence the climate and the effects of it."

"As for data gaps, the entire international community on Svalbard will have that problem, and of course that will also impact on our research. For students to be missing something like this in their research is a problem."

Waiting Game

Moen and the UCIS have made provisions for as much education as possible to continue. Classes have moved online and small, risk-free research trips are still being planned. Dahl-Jensen and Mankoff are waiting to see when they can reach their equipment, and planning how much extra work they may have to do in the snow.

Climate science is also waiting, to see when it will continue, and just how vital the missing data will be.

Reposted with permission from Deutsche Welle.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.