Cook Inletkeeper scientist will head to Antarctica

Early next year, 80 female scientists plan to set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina, for Antarctica. Among them will be Homer’s Sue Mauger, Science Director of the conservation nonprofit Cook Inletkeeper.

Beginning in February 2018, Mauger will be spending 20 days at the bottom of the world as part of Homeward Bound, a leadership training program for female scientists. While there, she and the other participants will discuss not only Antarctica and its climate, but the present state of women in science, and of science in society.

In Alaska’s science community, Mauger said she sees a lot of female field researchers, but moving up the hierarchy of scientific leadership, she noted the faces tend to become more male.

“I think that’s a lot of what Homeward Bound wants to explore — what are the reasons for that, and how do we work toward making that change?” she said. “It’s not just about pushing women to go higher in their career. I think it’s really about changing the way we do decision-making — how we work in more collaborative, inclusive ways — which I think is an inclination women tend to have naturally. Our more hierarchical structures don’t necessarily embrace that. We should be thinking about how we can make those two ways of thinking a little more compatible.”

Since 2008, Mauger has been leading Cook Inletkeeper’s recording of air and water temperatures in streams that feed into Cook Inlet and serve as spawning and rearing habitat for salmon. She was the lead author of a paper published in September 2016 in the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, which analyzed four years of temperatures in 48 salmon streams in the Cook Inlet watershed, creating a record that can be compared to future temperatures for a region-wide picture of ecological changes.

Mauger said Cook Inletkeeper deliberately created the stream observation network as “a template that other organizations could do.” There are now three other observation networks in Alaska doing similar work in other watersheds: one begun in Bristol Bay in 2014, one in Kodiak and a new one in Southeast Alaska. Mauger called the stream monitoring work “a great example of how networks of people can accomplish big data sets.” According to its website, Cook Inletkeeper executed the project in partnership with non-government organizations, community groups, and state and federal agencies, and created a standard protocol written for general audiences on how to log temperature data for the project. Mauger said science needs more research of this kind: long-term region-scale observations collected by widely-distributed collaborators. While increasingly powerful computers make large datasets more practical, Mauger said another factor is making them more necessary: the need to observe climate change.

“Researchers are thinking about how large climate-related changes are happening, so we need to understand information at much larger scales than we have in the past,” she said. “Climate change will have really local effects, but we need to get an understanding of what that range of change will be. I think it’s requiring us to look at bigger spacial scales, so that’s why we need these regional networks — Cook Inlet, Bristol Bay — to understand how the environment is going to change. … Looking at larger scales requires more partnerships.”

In most of the streams Cook Inletkeeper monitored, temperatures “exceeded established criterion for (salmon) spawning and incubation, above which chronic and sublethal effects become likely, every year of the study, which suggests salmon are already experiencing thermal stress.” The study’s projections for the next 50 years of temperatures “suggest these criteria will be exceeded at more sites and by increasing margins.”

For Mauger, climate change is making science more socially important. She said “the challenges we’re facing as a country right now, in terms of real division and difficulty talking well amongst ourselves about difficult issues” made her more interested in the Homeward Bound program.

“This opportunity really made me feel like it was time to reach out and do something different — to expose myself to new ways of thinking,” Mauger said. “The rhetoric we hear about science and climate change, and discussions about diversity, makes this program to me more relevant and important to do at this time. If I’d heard about this program three years ago, I don’t know if I’d have felt the same way.”

Though she’s noticed the rise in hostile rhetoric, Mauger said she seldom meets climate skeptics in person — a symptom, she said, of ideological fragmenting in a self-segregating society.

“When I give a talk, it’s people who are willing to hear about climate science and our changing environment who are there,” she said. “And the folks who don’t think that’s happening, they don’t show up for the talk anymore. The fact that I don’t have those questions at the end of the talk is indicative of that, because there are people who are clearly struggling with the evidence.”

During the time she’ll be spending with other scientists in Antarctica, Mauger plans to focus on finding ways to communicate about climate change. Having been a Homeward Bound member for about two months, she said her participation so far has centered around books the group is reading and discussing together, and on a monthly teleconference with the 70 scientists selected for the trip so far.

“I think we’re all uniformly excited and not quite sure what we’ve gotten ourselves into,” Mauger said. “There’s an awful lot that will happen when we’re together in the same space, and now there’s a year of anticipation of what that energy will be like.”

She’s also anticipating her first sight of Antarctica, “a landscape that will be reflecting our inner thinking,” she said.

“There’s so much rich history down there of the human desire for exploration that’s really inspiring,” Mauger said. “I feel like that’s kind of what we’re doing as women — exploration of the future ways we’re going to move around this world: with more confidence in our strengths, more willingness to be engaged in decision-making, and hopefully creating the network of women that will get us there.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.

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