Ross Virginia is highly involved at Dartmouth College as a professor of environmental studies, the director of the Institute of Arctic Studies, as well as the principle investigator of the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship program IGERT. Furthermore, his influence extends even to Antarctica, where a valley is named after him to honor his research in soil biology.
DUJS staff writer Sunny Zhang spoke with Virginia on topics ranging from the early days of the Arctic Institute, to the new graduate program in polar research, and the very pressing and real effects of climate change.
DUJS: To begin with, can you shed some light on the background of the Arctic Institute?
Ross Virginia: The institute goes back to 1989. When the original director left, they asked me to fill the position. I’m a polar researcher who studies regions in Antarctica. The Arctic Institute has been involved on the undergraduate level by offering courses on polar subject matters as well as holding student exhibits. It has also been involved in public outreach. An example is the thin ice exhibit at the Hood Museum last year. Now it is looking to bridge the gap in graduate education.
DUJS: I know that Dartmouth recently received close to $3 million of grant money from the NSF (National Science Foundation) for a new polar sciences and engineering graduate program, the Integrative Graduate Education and Research Traineeship (IGERT) program. How did Dartmouth get this grant and what is the program’s purpose and goal?
RV: Dartmouth is a major graduate institution and we had a lot of graduate students scattered about doing polar things but no way to draw them together as a community. They were getting a very traditional science based education, and what occurred to us is, this new generation of polar scientists and engineers, what should they know and what aren’t they getting at a traditional graduate program? We realized they were missing exposure to the human dimensions of the work, the relevance of working with people, and particularly with the people that are experiencing this climate change in the north. A big part of this grant is to help students broaden the interdisciplinary part of their science research and then see how their research fits in to meet the needs of the people that live in the north and also to help them to partner and work more closely with indigenous people of the north. It’s taking science students and challenging them to ask different questions of their science after recognizing what the needs are of the people that are being affected as opposed to just knowing what the science question is, standing alone. Our IGERT program partners with Greenland and the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory (CRREL).
DUJS: What resources are available to IGERT students?
RV: What the IGERT does is the NSF provides Dartmouth with a pile of money and IGERT students receive a two year fellowship at a higher education institute. There’s a national IGERT recruiting network and there’s additional funds and a special curriculum developed for these students. Probably the most exciting part of that is that students are able to spend a good portion of a summer in Greenland where they will be doing science in Greenland, and then will go to the capital of Greenland, Nuuk, and will interact with the Innuit Circumpolar Council and various other organizations to determine what is important to the people of Greenland in terms of climate change, their use of natural resources, and the like.
DUJS: Is the program starting up this coming year?
RV: The award was made this August. The first set of IGERT students will be admitted next fall. We’re working to recruit students, getting the curriculum developed, and working with Greenland to establish programs. In order to work with Greenland effectively on IGERT we have to develop and sustain this relationship. I went to Greenland in August. We’re bringing Greenland researchers and students here. Dickey is also funding a fellowship and offering it to students that want a fellowship in Greenland. We’re doing this back and forth to start a collaboration.
DUJS: What words would you use to summarize the IGERT program?
RV: The words that really describe what NSF is trying to do is “interdisciplinary” and “transformative.” They’re really trying to change the way faculty and graduate students work together.
DUJS: So instead of graduate students focusing on one narrow scientific topic, this program will allow them to integrate themselves into bigger issues, more relevant to human society.
RV: Right. It is definitely trying to integrate students from different departments and backgrounds and encourage them to work together. This IGERT program is NSF’s way of trying to broadly infect graduate education and the focus is on traineeship. They’re investing in individual students and will follow these students throughout their careers to figure out whether these types of programs, extra attention, and support make for more science and a better future.
DUJS: Can you talk a little more about what research and programs the Arctic Institute engages in? How does the Institute work?
RV: The institute is part of the Dickey Center. The Dickey Center broadly helps enhance and connect any international activities on campus. The Arctic Institute operates in the same way. We have funds to help undergraduate students that want to do an internship or research in Alaska or Greenland, for example. We want to help students be engaged in issues in the north and related to that. The student group, Dartmouth Council on Climate Change, works closely with us. This group is very interested in climate change and climate change policy. They’re a Dickey student group that has a budget and can bring in different speakers, and works like the World Affairs Council. For faculty, we provide support for them to attend international meetings, help bring speakers in, just in general trying to increase the amount of activity that is going on. Now that this IGERT has been awarded, the Dickey Center will be the home for that IGERT. We want to work on connecting the students, faculty, and the public. Dickey and the Arctic Institute got the IGERT here, now our job is to help the various departments get involved and meet their aspirations for IGERT.
DUJS: Shifting gears a little, how is your research related to climate change and the impact it has on the earth?
RV: I am an ecosystem ecologist by training. I focus on nutrient cycles, carbon and nitrogen cycles and how these nutrients cycle in soil systems and the biodiversity of soils, and how the life in soils influence the rate of cycling. As the earth warms, that stimulates the metabolism of soil, increases the rate of biological activity. In that process the old ancient carbon that accumulated when the system was colder is being metabolized by microorganisms and released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. This is one of the positive feedback cycles of climate change. As it gets warmer there’s more biological activity, more melting of permafrost, more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere, and more warming. In 1989, I went down to Antarctica to work on the dry valleys there and have been down there fourteen times since then.
DUJS: Have you noticed differences in the weather pattern in Antarctica or any other physical changes since you’ve started working down there?
RV: We’ve actually noticed in the areas I work in that those areas have been cooling. Part of climate change is that not all places get warmer – this particular part of the Antarctica is getting cooler. Human activity is still driving this change. When the ozone hole opens over Antarctica, it’s like a rip or tear in a blanket, and more energy can escape into space. Even though green house gases are being pumped in, and you’d think Antarctica is getting warmer and warmer, the part of Antarctica really affected by the ozone hole seems to not be heating up yet. Most of the climate models suggest that the ozone is repairing itself. The warming is seen very strongly in the Arctic regions and in the peninsula of Antarctica where the ice shelves are breaking off and floating away. The actual core of Antarctica has been cooling over the last two decades. That’s still climate change. We’ve been looking at how that cooling is influencing the function of ecosystems and the cascade of effects that the small change of cooling provides on the polar systems.
DUJS: So after you and your colleagues have gathered all this data and evidence that shows there’s a shift in how the earth is acting due to human activity, how do you bring that to the attention of policy makers who will hopefully try to implement policies that make the public more aware of what’s going on?
RV: That’s one of the things that the Dickey Center is working very hard to do. We’re hosting a workshop December 1-3 and we’re bringing in people from Canada, Russia, Greenland, and the United States that include deputy foreign ministers, academics, and people involved in commerce and business who will engage in a three day roundtable discussing the security implications of the melting ice in the north. As the ocean melts, that’s going to open up all different kinds of opportunities. There will be more oil and gas developments offshore, there will be more commerce, but also more opportunity for international conflict. A lot of these boundaries and resources have not been fully settled upon. The northern coast of these Arctic nations have large populations of indigenous populations and there are a lot of environmental and economical concerns as well as development issues. It is essential that these indigenous peoples have control over their fate. There can be conflicts of interest among various nation states as well as involving indigenous peoples.
There will also be a race for resources as ice starts to melt in the north. For example, the northwest passage internal waters that you can transverse with ships now as the ice begins to melt: the U.S. sees that as an international passageway between two ocean bodies but Canada claims that as internal waters. It’s not settled. This conference is really trying to bring scientists, policy makers, and representatives of indigenous groups together to hopefully develop questions, an agenda, and priorities so when the next administration comes in they have an idea of what should be considered and worked on. It has been about ten years since the U.S. has revised its Arctic policy document and things are changing so quickly up there that some changes in policy needs to be done and needs to soon. The Dickey Center is trying to get this dialogue going and get the right people together. Academic institutions can get people to talk in ways that they can’t talk in Washington, D.C.
DUJS: In what areas of climate change research do you think more work needs to be done? What is currently being researched that is essential to the overall understanding of what is happening to our environment?
RV: Looking north, it is really important to understand the behavior of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. That will provide feedback on climate inland and will have major feedback effects on marine ecosystems. The polar bears have just been put on the threatened species list and the polar bear is just one species but it is emblematic of the marine mammal food web. Another issue is the contamination of the Arctic food web. We think of the north as a very pristine place but it is actually a place where a lot of our pollutants end up. An important area of research is how climate change influences not only animals involved but also between the animals and the people. On the terrestrial side, a big problem is that as the north gets warmer and drier, there are more and more fires. There are many reports from Alaska now of fires and the black soot rises up and lands on the snow and increases the rate at which the snow melts. This whole feedback situation comes into effect when the soil gets warmer and drier, becoming biologically more active, and releasing more CO2 in the atmosphere. We can be trying to cut back carbon emissions down here but we’re not gaining as much as we think we are because we’re being bitten by the climate change effects that are already taking place. So knowing what these effects are and knowing how effective our reduction of emissions against the natural ecosystems will be is really important.
DUJS: Can this process of climate change be slowed down much or do we just have to deal with it as it comes?
RV: A lot of it is having to deal with it. Everyone is talking now about adaptation and mitigation. How do we accept what is going on? How do we adapt to the change that is on its way? How do we reduce the impact of emissions themselves? The adaption process is where it’s really important for science to engage with people who are forced to adapt this change. What science is important to them? They want to be full partners in this science. They have a lot of knowledge of their environment. The knowledge comes from living in a place for hundreds of thousands of years. One of the challenges that IGERT has as well is to help students understand how this traditional knowledge and western science collectively contribute to figuring out what is happening.
DUJS: I’ve read articles about people who live on islands that are being flooded by the rising sea levels and have already been or will be forced to leave their homes. What is the cause of this rise?
RV: This is another big issue. Sea level rise is exceeding the rate of current models. People are trying to figure out why. There’s some evidence that the ice sheets in Greenland are breaking off icebergs at a faster rate that people thought was possible. What appears to be happening is that we’re getting more melt at the top of the ice sheet during the summers. That water is literally burrowing it’s way down a mile of ice and then reaching what had previously been the frozen interface between the ice sheet and the ground. That water gets up between those two is like a skate on a skating rink. There’s less friction that is causing the ice to surge more quickly towards the coast. Our current models don’t adequately deal with this. There’s a big race among the glaciologists to sort that out and understand better what is going on.
DUJS: Do you think policy makers will ever reach a consensus on what path to pursue in dealing with climate change?
RV: The politics side is really messy but I think that the extent to which you think climate change is real and how big of a problem it is, that assessment then drives how much you’re willing to do about it. There’s still not complete consensus on how much to spend, which areas to focus on, and where to start. The Dickey Center, the Arctic Institute, and the IGERT program are really trying to enhance the information that is available to people, and people will ultimately have to decide what they want to do about it.