Feature

In the Same Boat

As concerns about climate change intensify, international collaboration on research is providing new insights—and hope for solutions.
Icebergs in the Arctic as seen from above. A major international research expedition called Mosaic is currently drifting in the Arctic. Photo: Annie Spratt/Unsplash
 
Mark Toner

In fall 2019, Jessie Creamean found herself floating on an ice floe well north of the Arctic Circle, where occupational hazards range from polar bears and near total darkness to windchills approaching 50 degrees below zero. 

Working to collect air and ice samples, the Colorado State University researcher was not alone. Creamean was part of what will ultimately become a cohort of 300 researchers from 70 institutions in nearly 20 countries, all taking shifts aboard a German icebreaker that was intentionally moored in Arctic ice last September and left to drift through one of the world’s least explored regions.

Organized by Germany’s Alfred Wegener Institute, the yearlong Multidisciplinary Drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (Mosaic) expedition has literally put the world’s scientific community in the same boat. 

Surrounded by ice, and traversing the Arctic Circle at a rate of about five miles a day, the RV Polarstern is equipped with a broad range of scientific instruments—and several crew members whose official job description is “polar bear guard.” Divided into teams, the researchers venture onto the ice to gather samples that, organizers hope, will bring together a better understanding of how climate change is affecting the Arctic—and by definition, the entire world. (Follow their progress here.)

Scientists on an ice floe with a ship in the background
Jessie Creamean in front of the Akademik Fedorov on the transit up to the high Arctic. Photo: Courtesy Jessie Creamean

For Creamean, whose own research centers around cloud formation, the Arctic is of vital importance. 

“Clouds act like thermostats over sea ice,” she says. “Depending on their properties, they can reflect sunlight or trap heat, and that in turn can help facilitate the melting of sea ice…and what happens to the Arctic doesn’t necessarily stay in the Arctic.”

Creamean is working to determine how microbes, like the algae and bacteria that are found in water, sea ice, and snow, interact with the atmosphere, where they can seed clouds—a phenomenon for which the scientific community has no wintertime measurements in the Arctic.

But along with collecting her own samples using a portable aerosol sampler she nicknamed “C3PO,” Creamean worked on an ecology team with scientists from Germany, Sweden, and other countries focused on research involving everything from fish and gases to microbes.  

“We all have a common language and interest being up there,” says Creamean. “We work well together targeting specific problems, but from different angles and disciplines. That’s the best way to solve problems.”

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Ship at night in the Arctic
The Polarstern is the home of the Mosaic expedition, a collaboration of international researchers and scientists. Photo: Courtesy Jessie Creamean
Cross-Country Collaboration

Scientific research has always had an international bent, and the Mosaic expedition is one highly visible example of the collaborative work being done at institutions around the globe to address common challenges—challenges that will likely intensify in coming years, requiring more concerted efforts. 

In 2019, the European Union (EU) agency that oversees education unveiled what it calls the “European Universities” initiative. Along with integrating education structures across borders, the initiative calls for cross-country research that goes “beyond existing higher education cooperation models” by “addressing together societal challenges in a multi-disciplinary approach.”

Seven European University alliances involving 114 higher education institutions from 24 EU nations have been awarded grants of more than $5 million per consortia to address issues of importance in their respective regions in the first pilot of the Erasmus+ initiative.

“Having a broad international consortium is very symbolic of the importance of the work we are doing.” —Mathew Shupe

Climate research represents a challenge larger than any one region. The Mosaic expedition is the first collaboration of its kind in the Arctic, where sea ice coverage during the summer months has fallen by 50 percent since 2000.

“Having a broad international consortium is very symbolic of the importance of the work we are doing,” Mathew Shupe, of the University of Colorado and the co-coordinator of the Mosaic expedition, wrote in a blog post. “Scientists from across the world broadly agree on the dramatic changes that are occurring in the Arctic and the research that is needed to understand, manage, and respond to these changes.”

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A scientists gestures while talking about his research
Researcher Adrian Wackett refers to his work studying earthworms’ effect on climate change as “global worming.” Photo: Courtesy Adrian Wackett
The Birds and the Bees… and Worms

A surprising amount of what researchers know about climate change involves examining small creatures: microbes, worms, bees, and birds. Understanding changes in where these creatures live and migrate can yield clues about the impact of climate on vulnerable species. The data can also shed light on how those same species can unwittingly contribute to climate change themselves.

Adrian Wackett calls his research “global worming.” But there is a serious problem behind the tongue-in-cheek pun: earthworms have proliferated in areas where they did not historically exist, and they do not always live up to their beneficial reputation. 

Wackett and his adviser, Kyungsoo Yoo, in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Soil, Water, and Climate, focus on what they call the “earthworm invasion”—so called because of the major impacts affecting all levels of the ecosystem when non-native earthworms are introduced in new places. 

A hand holds several earthworms
Studying earthworms and their adaptability offers clues to the effects of climate change. Photo: Courtesy Adrian Wackett

When they burrow through soil in ecosystems that evolved without them, earthworms can disrupt existing ground-level plants, and, in turn, the animals that feed on them. Making matters worse, earthworms also unlock carbon and nitrogen trapped in the soil in ways that can temporarily make them more available to foster plant growth—but only in plants adapted to take advantage of earthworm activity.  

When earthworms proliferate in regions where plants are not adapted in this way, “we think we’re seeing a lot of that carbon being lost from the ecosystem,” says Wackett. While the full contours of what happens next are still being resolved, Wackett is aware of the potential problems exacerbated by climate change. 

“Soils store more than twice the amount of carbon than what’s in the atmosphere,” he says. “When you flip a switch and cause that carbon to be lost, it’s going to end up in the atmosphere and accelerate that feedback loop, leading to even more soil carbon loss.”

Wackett’s work also illustrates how scientists from different cultures approach the same issues in different ways. Many North American ecologists and soil scientists have researched the impact of invasive earthworms in parts of Alaska, Canada, and across the Great Lakes and New England regions—all of which had been covered by glaciers during the last Ice Age and subsequently invaded by earthworms introduced by European settlers. 

“In different cultures and academic institutions, people are informed by the prevailing theories of the academic culture of their country.” —Adrian Wackett

But Yoo’s colleague Jonatan Klaminder at Umeå University in Sweden, another country with large amounts of formerly glaciated land, informed them that most researchers there believed earthworms to be indigenous and generally beneficial.

“In different cultures and academic institutions, people are informed by the prevailing theories of the academic culture of their country,” Wackett says. “Even though many researchers in Scandinavia were studying earthworms, none had viewed their projects through the earthworm invasion lens.”

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A researcher holds up a sample of soil
When Wackett first went to Sweden, “everyone was calling me worm boy,” he says. His research was heavily informed by Swedish expertise and methodology.

Wackett ultimately spent more than a year in Sweden, conducting a series of experiments that found that earthworms were first brought to the northern reaches of the country by European farmers—and have since been remarkably resilient in migrating to new areas. His research borrowed heavily from Swedish methodology—including work with soils cultivated by the indigenous Sami peoples and expertise shared by Swedish Arctic plant biologists and ecologists—in part due to his time spent at an Umeå-affiliated climate impact research center in the far northern tip of the Swedish Arctic.

“That marriage of the North American ‘invasive earthworm’ lens coupled with a different style of experimental design that in many ways felt very Swedish ultimately meshed very well,” Wackett says. For the first few months, “everyone was calling me worm boy,” he adds. “Once they thought more about the theory behind it and started to see our data, they embraced the work and took the science seriously.”

Citizen Science

As an assistant professor of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College in Singapore, Jennifer Sheridan brought undergraduate students to forested areas to set up camera traps that captured images of a wide range of mammals and demonstrated the biodiversity of the densely populated city-state. While the project—mirrored by colleagues at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut— introduced students to urban ecology, Sheridan has since focused her efforts on a much broader audience: the world at large.

Citizen science, which involves enlisting the general public in collecting and analyzing data in collaboration with professional scientists, can help researchers “tackle large-scale questions that require big data sets that don’t require highly skilled observations,” Sheridan says. 

“The more people understand and engage with science, the better people can understand the world around them and make informed decisions.” —Jennifer Sheridan

She points to the example of the National Audubon Society’s annual Christmas bird count, which allows scientists to better understand how species ranges are shifting across the United States over time, as well as collaborative efforts in Malaysian Borneo, which leveraged indigenous knowledge of fishing to help identify the source of mass fish deaths. 

“The more people understand and engage with science, the better people can understand the world around them and make informed decisions,” Sheridan says. She also helped sponsor a citizen science symposium at Yale-NUS, which drew practitioners from India, Malaysia, Nepal, and Singapore.

Now curator of amphibians and reptiles at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Sheridan continues to collaborate with the South East Asia Rainforest Research Partnership in Malaysia. Her efforts include assisting with plans to hire local research technicians to prepare them for scientific careers in the Sabah region.  

She is also working to connect teachers and students in Pittsburgh with counterparts in the Sabah region. Fortunately, there’s an app for that: With more than 1 million registered users, the iNaturalist app, a joint initiative of the California Academy of Sciences and the National Geographic Society, provides an easy way for anyone to capture and share information about their surroundings. 

“It’s a great tool for engaging students with nature because it can feel more like a game of Pokémon than a science assignment,” Sheridan says. “My hope is that students in both places will learn more about the biodiversity in their own backyard as well as biodiversity, climate, and conservation on the opposite side of the world, and that by creating a personal connection with this far-off place, they will be encouraged to think globally about these issues.”

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The Akademik Federov breaks ice as it moves through the Arctic.
The Akademik Federov breaks ice as it moves through the Arctic. Photo: Courtesy Jessie Creamean
Fire and Ice

Climate research always seems to come back to the sea. This winter, Wackett found himself on a research vessel exploring a very different climate than the one explored during the Polarstern’s Arctic voyage. He was part of a large international and interdisciplinary expedition conducting deep dives to hydrothermal vents on the East Pacific Rise, where seawater temperatures can reach over 750 degrees Fahrenheit, to study signatures of biological activity trapped in tiny particles that erupt from the “black smoker” vents.

“Climate is connected throughout the globe. We all have a stake. International collaboration is the most efficient way of understanding climate sciences and trying to get a better idea of what’s happening—and hopefully find ways to address it.” —Jessie Creamean

Despite the long history of international collaboration in research, there are also significant hurdles, many of which could be exacerbated in the coming years. Wackett points to an example that is, literally, the polar opposite of the Mosaic expedition. Antarctic research stations, like the continent itself, have historically been divided up by nations, which has at times limited collaboration.

“If we’re going to solve any of these global environmental problems, there has to be a cross-cultural and international dialogue,” he says. “That’s when the best work is done.”

The cohort of researchers sailing on the Polarstern is a prime example of the benefits of collaboration. Creamean returned to dry land from the Arctic in late 2019 with a cooler full of samples to analyze in her lab in Colorado. Equally importantly, she walked away with newfound connections that will allow her to add broader context to her findings.  

“Climate is connected throughout the globe,” Creamean adds. “We all have a stake. International collaboration is the most efficient way of understanding climate sciences and trying to get a better idea of what’s happening—and hopefully find ways to address it.”  •

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