It’s the largest academic conference UNBC has hosted: nearly 500 academics from 26 countries around the world. They are here for the eighth congress presented by the International Arctic Social Science Association and the theme is “Northern Sustainabilities.” Through hundreds of research presentations, workshops, lectures, and seminars, the delegates are being exposed to various ideas and perspectives on economic, social, cultural, and environmental sustainability – all from a northern lens. It’s great.
I took in a session from Swedish academic Sverker Sorlin, an expert in the notion of “environmental humanities” – the idea that understanding the environment and sustainability is as much social and cultural as it is technical and biological. The Canfor Theatre was packed for his presentation, which examined the history of glacier research in Scandinavia and how it has been shaped by local and regional perceptions of place while also contributing to international knowledge about the changing global climate.
His presentation came at the end of a week that also saw a UNBC glacier specialist attract international media coverage. UNBC professor and Canada Research Chair Brian Menounos had been interviewed about a major American climate change report that targeted the rapid melt of glaciers in BC and Alaska as a critical issue. Menounos is a leading researcher on the topic and has been working with researchers from Alaska, Washington State, Alberta, and BC to document the changes among BC’s glaciers. And have the changes been significant? Yes, with an exclamation point, according to the US report, with implications for electrical production, fisheries, and sea level rise.
In 2008, I traveled with Menounos and his PhD student at the time, Matt Beedle, to the Castle Creek Glacier near McBride to photograph their research and make the early results available to the media. Later, we worked with a video crew to produce a story for the Weather Network and UNBC’s YouTube channel. Six years later, the research appears to finally be getting major attention: the story on CBC generated more than 1400 comments, with another 1000 on the National Post website. Part of the reason for the high levels of interest must be the striking data that Menounos and his team present: BC’s 17,000 glaciers are permanently losing 22 billion cubic metres of water per year. That’s enough to fill BC Place Stadium 8300 times! Beyond the striking data is the conclusion that global warming caused by consumption of fossil fuels is largely to blame. “We know what we need to do,” Menounos is quoted as saying by the Canadian Press (and subsequently reprinted). “It’s not an easy decision, but we have to start, I would argue, thinking about changing our reliance on fossil fuels.”
Sverker Sorlin would agree. People do have a role to play. “If we use the next generation wisely,” he said at the end of his talk at UNBC, “and use our conscience as much as our brains, we might finally deliver on northern sustainability.”