At Family Game Night, Glacier Retreat is in the Cards

Glaciers Then and Now being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)
Glaciers Then and Now being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)

A game that focuses on glacier retreat drew a number of players at a community outreach event held earlier this month in Fairbanks, Alaska, as part of a major international conference, the Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW). The game, called Glaciers Then and Now, is played with a deck of 16 cards, each of which  contain a photograph of a glacier–some in black and white, some in color–and the year it was taken. The players are told that these cards form eight pairs of images of individual glaciers taken from the same spot, the second one decades after the first.

It’s fairly easy to separate the deck into the earlier and later cards. Six of them have dates between 1899 and 1909, and eight are from 2003 and 2004. The card from 1941 is in black and white, like the oldest cards, and fits in with them. It can take a little more thought to decide where to put the one remaining card in the set, which is from 1976. It’s in color, like the new cards. A player might have to count to see that it belongs with the set of older cards.

Before and after images of Toboggan Glacier (source: S. Paige/B. Molnia/USGS/NESTA)
One pair of cards from Glaciers Then and Now (source: S. Paige/B. Molnia USGS/NESTA)

The players then have to match up the pairs. Some of them are easy, because they have distinctive foreground features like boulders and beaches, which can readily be identified. Others are more difficult, especially the ones in which bushes and trees, which have grown in recent years, block part of the view. Nonetheless, most players complete the matching successfully. They then can notice the striking  differences between the two cards in each pair, and recognize how the newer cards in each pair show photos of glaciers with much less ice. The contrast is striking even for the pair that is separated by the shortest interval, only 27 years, The worksheet that accompanies the game invites the players to compare the pictures, and leads them to see how all glaciers in Alaska are rapidly retreating.

The materials for this game draw on a repeat-photography project of the US Geological Service (USGS). Bruce Molnia and other photographers travelled to glaciers for which historical photographs were available, and located the precise spots where these images had been taken.  The images were first developed into a game in 2007 by Teri Eastburn of the Center for Science Education of the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research. In an email interview with GlacierHub, she wrote that she originally created the game “for use with field trip students interested in learning about polar science and how climate change is impacting the region.” She mentioned “the power of visuals to tell a very important story.” The game was later modified into its current form by Lisa Gardiner for the National Earth Science Teachers Association

Elena Sparrow, the Education Outreach Director and Research Professor at the International Arctic Research Center at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, selected this game, along with a number of others, for Family Game Night, a community event at ASSW held on March 16. In an email interview with GlacierHub, Sparrow wrote, “All the games and activities were utilized and children and their parents seemed to enjoy them. We estimated about 75 participants.”

Eco-Chains being played at Family Game Night (source: Yuri Bult-Ito)
Eco-Chains being played at Family Game Night (source: Jessica Brunacini)

Family Game Night drew people from Fairbanks, who were curious about ASSW and eager to learn more about their home region, as well as visitors who were attending the conference. The other activities included puzzles that illustrate Arctic sea ice loss and glacier retreat, EcoChains: Arctic Crisis (a card game, developed by the PoLAR Climate Change Education Partnership at Columbia University, in which players build an Arctic marine food web, learn about the importance of sea ice, and see potential future changes in marine ecosystems) and a Jenga game of stacking and removing wooden pieces which represent permafrost, which is affected by warming temperatures and thawing. There were also some games developed by and with indigenous communities, including the Never Alone video game created by the Cook Inlet Tribal Council, and Neqpik, a cooperative board game that illustrates the complex flow of  cash, natural resources, and goodwill in a rural Yup’ik community on the Yukon River.  

The Arctic Science Summit Week (ASSW), held annually since 1999, is the largest international meeting of organizations involved in Arctic research.  It is sponsored by the International Arctic Science Committee, an international scientific non-governmental organization which promotes and coordinates natural and social scientific research in the Arctic.  Each ASSW  brings  together scientists, government officials and other stakeholders to discuss current activities and research needs.  

Native dancers at ASSW (source: Jessica Brunacini)
A group of Athabascan dancers and drummers perform at the ASSW International Arctic Assembly Banquet (source: Jessica Brunacini)

The 2016 ASSW, which ran from March 12 to 18, was only the second  to be held in the United States. It was hosted by the University of Alaska Fairbanks. A thousand participants from 30 countries converged on the university, where they presented papers and posters, attended cultural events and press briefings, and met for formal and informal conversations. They reviewed new research methodologies, including underwater autonomous vehicles—remote-controlled submarines that can gather data under sea ice. And they discussed programs that integrate scientific methods with community-based monitoring drawing on indigenous knowledge.

The recent weather was a major focus at ASSW, as Jessica Brunacini, the project manager for the PoLAR Partnership, described in an email interview with GlacierHub. “Alaska just saw its second warmest winter on record, its third winter in a row with abnormally dry and warm conditions, and it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the US,” she wrote. These changes are disrupting ecosystems, which in turn puts pressure  on the subsistence hunting and fishing which have long been central to the livelihoods of the indigenous peoples in the region. Commercial fisheries, of economic importance in the region, are also rapidly changing. Speakers also discussed the influence of the warming Arctic on weather at lower latitudes. As they said, “what happens in the Arctic does not stay in the Arctic.”

Despite these challenges, the ASSW had a positive tone. Brunacini described the conference as “bringing together interdisciplinary expertise and cutting edge research related to the Arctic and especially to the rapid changes we are seeing there,”  and noted that it can “help facilitate more of the solutions-focused discussions and research that is needed to effectively respond to the dramatic changes taking place.”

Northern lights outside Fairbanks, Alaska during ASSW (source: Jessica Brunacini)
Northern lights as seen from the Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks (source: Jessica Brunacini)

It is striking that a simple card game about glaciers was featured at a community event, held at this major international conference on the Arctic. The interest that it held for visitors at Family Game Night suggests the connections among the different components of the cryosphere—whether glaciers, sea ice or permafrost—and among the communities that are affected by the impacts of climate change on the cryosphere.

Readers who would like to explore before-and-after pictures of glaciers can see the Glaciers Then and Now game here, and can also visit Bruce Molnia’s website. And another link is available for those who want to explore historical photographs of glaciers from around the world. 

Molnia says that he has visited around 80 Alaskan glaciers as part of the photography project. He also notes that he played the card game with students and their parents years ago. “Most were very surprised at the rapid changes,” he said in an email to GlacierHub.

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