JSEP students
Five U.S. students, each with a demonstrated interest in the natural sciences, study in Greenland for three weeks as part of a Dartmouth-cooordinated Joint Science Education Program, JSEP.

The ski-equipped Air National Guard LC-130 carried Alana Macken to Greenland nearly a year after the Northern California firestorm roared through her hometown of Santa Rosa in 2017, killing 22 people and destroying more than 5,000 structures. The fires deeply affected Macken.

Alana Macken
Alana Macken, from Santa Rosa, California, sits in front of a melt lake near Kangerlussuaq. (Photo by Erica Wallstrom)

“The fires absolutely devastated our town,” she says. “It feels hard to put into words. My grandmother, severely disabled, living in a unit behind our house, lost everything she had from her family that passed away. My friends lost pets, everything they owned, and loved ones. We were evacuated for three weeks, and the smoke was suffocating, literally. It was impossible to be outside for more than an hour without a mask. Most significantly for me, though, was the haunting feeling of walking around my town, a red glow from the sun, burnt trees, sirens, and devastated loved ones. I felt like I was seeing the picture of hell I had in my mind.”

2017 fire made climate science ‘become real for me.’

Climate change contributes to more and bigger wildfires in a variety of ways, from earlier onset of warm temperatures in the spring, to drier summers, to faster-melting snowpacks causing parched soils, to problems with beetles and other pests leaving massive amounts of dead trees in the forest, ready to burn.

The wildfires Macken faced made the global problem of climate change personal for her, and she set out to learn all she could about the problem and find a way she could help fight it. So the following summer, she traveled to Greenland with four other U.S. students as part of the Joint Science Education Program, coordinated by Dartmouth College’s Institute for Arctic Studies.

“I definitely had always loved science, and I was interested in climate science, but it wasn’t really until having those fires sweep through here that it became real for me,” Macken says. “So just after those fires I kind of started to take climate science really seriously, and when I saw the program it encompassed so many amazing things, it encompassed the real science aspect and also the international aspect, even just learning about different cultures that I had never learned about before.”

Learning climate and culture in an ‘inquiry-based framework’

For Macken and other students in the program, flying to Greenland was just the beginning of their adventure into polar science. Over three weeks each summer, the students develop and conduct research projects, meet scientists, and fly to one of the Greenland Ice Sheet’s research stations to learn more about polar research and climate science. The program is also a cross-cultural exploration, with participants from Denmark, Greenland, and the U.S.

With Dartmouth graduate students as mentors, participants – high school students entering their senior year – spend three weeks together learning. They design their own projects, ranging from a couple days in length to the entire three weeks.

“That’s a really cool thing that I don’t think a lot of students get to do in a traditional classroom – actually do a project from start to finish in this inquiry-based framework,” says Lauren Culler, research assistant professor of environmental studies at Dartmouth, who coordinates the program.

To begin the program, five U.S. students, selected from a pool of about 200 applicants, gather in New York near the Air National Guard base to depart for Greenland. After getting acquainted with one another, they board the military aircraft to head to the town of Kangerlussuaq. Culler says few of the high school participants have traveled in a plane before, and the program covers transportation, lodging, and meals.

Collecting samples
JSEP puts students in the field for active scientific research, here taking samples of insects from an Arctic lake. (Photo by Lars Demant-Poort)

Macken’s project involved catching thousands of mosquitoes to study predator-prey relationships in warming climates. She listened to scientists talk about their work and participated in hands-on experiments like collecting data on water chemistry in the nearby river. However, she says the most enduring experience she had was when she traveled via LC-130 to an ice-core drilling station high on the Greenland Ice Sheet.

“I would say probably that had the most lasting impact on me actually because we were up in the middle of the ice sheet,” Macken says. She observed an active ice core drilling project, something she didn’t know much about before the program. “It really sparked an interest that I knew that I had before, but seeing some of that science in action really, really inspired me.”

Neosha Narayanan, now a sophomore at MIT, participated in the program during the summer of 2017. Her group’s project focused on studying the biodiversity of kettle lakes. During her third week, her cohort traveled to Summit Station – the highest point on Greenland’s Ice Sheet – to learn about science there.

Differing cultures, but ‘we’re all in the same fight’

In addition to learning about science, students have an immersive cultural experience, gaining knowledge from Greenlandic, Danish, and U.S. peers. The program even sets aside a night for students from each country to share their culture, traditions, families, and cook a meal from their homeland.

Participants also share their perspectives on the world and environment, as well as their common concerns. Macken bonded with her peers over the climate change-related impacts affecting their communities. She shared her experiences with the wildfire that devastated her town, while Greenlandic students told the group how permafrost was melting and destroying homes, and students from Denmark talked about impacts of sea-level rise on their low-lying island.

“Right now what’s going on in the world, especially with younger people working to fight climate change, there really is this culture of this mutual ‘we’ve both been through something, and we’re all in the same fight here’,” Macken says. “I got this feeling of like even though we were all so different in our cultures, and our language, and what we’ve been through, all of us had this same passion and drive to fix what’s going on.”

Narayanan also learned an appreciation for a different way of living. “The Greenlandic lifestyle is quite different from an American lifestyle, and it’s one that is a lot more sustainable and it uses less energy, and it carries a lot more reverence for the Earth and one’s resources, and I thought it was such a great way to live,” Narayanan says.

The program also has a sister program called Joint Antarctic School Expedition, which focuses on Antarctic science. The Antarctic program is a cooperative endeavor between the U.S. and Chile, and the program is conducted in Spanish. Four U.S. students are selected each year for this 10-14-day program.

Greenland drilling site
JSEP team in 2018 traveled to the top of the Greenland Ice Sheet to observe cutting-edge glaciology and ice core science. (Photo by Lars Demant-Poort)

Both programs can be major factors shaping  students’ lives. Narayanan says the Arctic program helped her determine what field she wants to work in.

“One of the most important things that I learned for myself personally was I hadn’t really been sure what I wanted to do with my life before then, and then that just really cemented the idea that I wanted to go into some sort of environmental work,” Narayanan says.

While most program participants end up going into the sciences, Culler says the program benefits them all.

“Whether or not they go into science, I think all of them really gain an appreciation for the process of science so they understand it better,” Culler says. “And I think that can help them think about issues like climate change in a different way, when they just know more about process of science and also who scientists are … They share this common interest in understanding the natural world and what’s happening to it.”

Macken, now studying at Dartmouth, has plans to major in either environmental science or physics, with an eventual goal of working in science communication and education. She says the JSEP experience  changed her life: “I developed an interest in Arctic Science that I did not have before,” and she feels the Institute of Arctic Science at Dartmouth is “a great place to be with this passion.”

Kristen Pope is an Idaho-based freelance writer who frequently covers science and conservation-related topics.

Topics: Climate Science, Youth