The Science Speaks blog series offers a deep dive into science, technology, and innovation topics on the minds of the public. The series explains focal topics through relatable analogies and asks readers to consider key opportunities, explore avenues for advancing gender equity and equality, and answer the ultimate question: Why should we care?
In the Season 2 finale of The Big Bang Theory, protagonists Sheldon Cooper, Leonard Hofstadter, Howard Wolowitz, and Rajesh Koothrappali prepare for a three-month expedition to the North Pole. The cohort seeks to join the ranks of predominantly male scientists that have preceded them for centuries, embarking on a voyage to collect scientific data unique to the Arctic region.
The mission of the Big Bang crew is a single example of Arctic research, an interdisciplinary effort deploying a range of natural, physical, and social sciences. Sheldon’s fascination with this northernmost region stems from the unique geomagnetic field data it provides for his studies, but other scientists are focused on the region’s equally unique climate, ecosystems, and communities.
The Arctic is generally viewed as the land and water bodies that exist north of the Arctic Circle. Its characteristically harsh climate is the reason Sheldon prepares for his trip by subjecting himself to an industrial-grade freezer in a local restaurant. Even so, human settlements have existed in the Arctic for thousands of years. In many of those communities, women and girls have fostered a longstanding relationship with the Arctic environment. Of course, the Arctic is famous for floating ice sheets and vast glaciers. Less obvious is the fact that Arctic ice sheets break apart and reform seasonally, though climate change is making the “reforming” part of that cycle less effective. For the past 50 years, temperatures in the Arctic have been increasing more than twice as fast as other locations around the globe.
To further complicate matters, Arctic climate change contributes to an unfortunate feedback loop with global implications. As permafrost thaws, trapped methane and carbon dioxide are released into the atmosphere, exacerbating warming. Loss of sea ice exposes ocean surface area, which absorbs more heat from the sun, which causes even more melting. Immediate impacts are felt by local communities, whose livelihoods, infrastructure, and traditional practices are threatened. Factors such as gender, age, and ethnicity affect how these impacts are felt at the individual level.
All of this brings us back to Sheldon and the scientific community’s interest in the Arctic. Humans’ millennia-long relationship with the region’s unique climate matched with its relevance to global climate change creates an irreplicable research opportunity. Scientists collaborate with indigenous populations to learn from their traditional knowledge passed down through generations. Historical, day-to-day observations related to sea ice thickness, ecosystem health, and more help to paint a complete picture of the past, present, and future of Arctic climate. Women and girls have a particularly important role to play here, since they maintain substantial knowledge about their environment based on traditional responsibilities (e.g., preparing fish, collecting wild plants, and myriad other activities).
Paired with technology tools like seafloor mapping, remote sensing, and computer modeling, a comprehensive understanding of Arctic climate can help improve navigation, transportation, extreme weather forecasting, and natural resource management in the short-term. In the long-term, global communities can develop more informed climate adaptation, mitigation, and resilience strategies.
Because women, girls, and gender diverse persons experience the impacts of climate change differently than men and boys, additional research opportunities exist to better understand gendered impacts specific to the Arctic. But gender equality can also be improved in the conduct of Arctic research, as efforts seek to overturn a masculine connotation that has plagued Arctic exploration since expeditions of the 18th and 19th centuries (the makeup of Sheldon’s research team is a 21st century case-in-point).
The importance of Arctic science, especially in the context of the climate crisis, has been reflected in U.S. government action. The United States is a member of the Arctic Council and a participant in its projects, including those related to gender. Arctic science cooperation is one of many topics addressed by various international agreements related to the region. Agencies support robust Arctic science programs, ranging from basic research to efforts supporting Arctic community resilience, sustainable economies, and ocean resource management. (Sheldon’s research trip was even said to be funded by one of these programs!) And that’s just a sampling of ongoing efforts.
You don’t have to be a Nobel Prize winner like Sheldon Cooper to appreciate the wide-ranging impact of Arctic science. How could Arctic research improve climate resilience in your community?
About the Author: Aubrey R. Paris, Ph.D., is a Gender, Climate & Innovation Policy Advisor in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues (S/GWI), which is actively developing policy strategies and outreach opportunities to ensure the leadership of women and girls in developing solutions to climate change. Dr. Paris received her Ph.D. in Chemistry and Materials Science from Princeton University and B.S. in Chemistry and Biology from Ursinus College.