Two girls and a car, fresh out of grad school, with new perspectives on climate science, that was how our adventure to the Rocky Mountain region began.
A year ago, we were hauled from two different Asian countries united by a common goal. We wanted to become better climate science communicators. That was how I first met Yang Zhang, my close friend and course-mate from Columbia University’s Climate and Society master’s program, and a colleague at GlacierHub. Fast forward to now, Yang and I are about to embark on new jobs in climate science education and climate policy, respectively. But beforehand, we decided to take a 12-day road trip to Glacier, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks to experience camping under the stars and how it feels to live in a RV.
Visiting the Rocky Mountains was a dream of mine. The trip to Grand Teton National Park, a mountain range of the Rocky Mountains, rekindled memories from high school. The Rockies were a constant mention in my geography curriculum in Singapore, from their epic formation when the oceanic crust was subducted under the North American continental crust to the weathering forces affecting the mountain range until today. As we drove past the mountains, I was momentarily dazzled by their sheer size; reading about mountain ranges 4,400m (12,000ft) was nothing compared to seeing them in real life.
There are many glaciers in the Rockies, but most are undergoing rapid retreat. Mount Moran’s five glaciers in the Grand Tetons, for example, have retreated by more than 20 percent in the last 40 years. Some have even disappeared. This narrative was plastered across information boards in the park in western Wyoming. I felt the message needed little introduction: the changes were clear in the small patches of ice on the mountains that stood in stark contrast with the old photograph of a much larger ice patch from 40 years ago. These small patches of ice were once connected when they formed during the Little Ice Age.
In that moment, I felt how powerful it was to be present on site, to see the most obvious evidence of climate change that I had studied all year before my own eyes. I watched as a father told his teenage daughter to capture a good photograph of the landscape. “You’ll never know for sure how or when this might change,” he told them.
The core of our climate and society curriculum at Columbia University was our discussion of the interactions between humans and nature. On one hand, we examined the manipulation and misinterpretation of climate science evidence that fuels arguments from climate skeptics. On the other hand, we were exposed to the different applications of climate science information that helps us better understand and perhaps even solve real-world problems. Over the past year, I have admired the amazing work of my professors, from using remote sensing to predict the regions most prone to Zika mosquitoes in Tanzania to understanding the plight of climate refugees in Bangladesh. But standing in front of the Grand Tetons, I realized these interactions are not limited to our world’s most remote places. The national park system in the United States is a nexus for nature and social interactions, and it reflects our quickly changing landscapes under rising global temperatures.
National Parks were established to protect areas of natural, scenic or cultural significance. They are spaces where people can get close to nature for relaxation and recreation, but they are also effective classrooms. Many researchers conduct ecological, geological and hydrological studies in parks like the Grand Tetons. As Yang and I took short walks from several viewpoints, I witnessed parents pointing out different types of wildlife seen on trails to their children, while kids eagerly filled in their activity books in an attempt to get a Junior Ranger badge.
“It’s always good to bring people close to nature. But how to respect nature and the indigenous people there should be the core as well,” Yang commented during one of our walks. National parks were first established with the purpose of conservation, while at the same time displacing many indigenous communities that lived on the lands. The indigenous populations were often forbidden from carrying out their usual activities of hunting and agriculture. Land grabs also ensued. The Shoshone people, who lived in the Grand Teton region, faced such treatment. Recently, the indigenous communities of nearby Yellowstone National Park have applied for a name change of Hayden Valley and Mount Doane, which were named after perpetuators of violence against Native Americans.
Before we hiked the Cascade Trail to see Teton Glacier, we were warned of grizzly bear sightings in the area. Grizzly bear activity has heightened as bears eat more furiously to prepare for their upcoming hibernation in the winter. During our adventure to Glacier National Park, we had been turned away from the Iceberg Lake Trail because it was closed for bear feasting season. Though I was disappointed, Yang said, “The trail would be the thing I feel the sorriest for missing on this trip. But I also feel glad that we wouldn’t be standing in the way of the mother grizzly bears who are trying to make sure their cubs survive this winter.” Just yesterday, the Endangered Species Act to protect grizzly bears living around Yellowstone National Park was restored.
My visit to the Rockies served as a timely reminder: it is easy to be in awe of nature’s beauty; living in harmony is harder to achieve. I remain hopeful that we will continue working in the right direction, as we learn to better read nature’s signs through technological advances and structure developments in an informed and sustainable manner.