Alaska Filmmaker Mike Loso Speaks about Glaciers

The short firm “Glaciers – Why Should We Care?” is currently being shown as part of International Polar Week. This event, running from 19 to 25 September 2016, is designed to promote polar science and education around the world, and includes a five-day film festival. It is sponsored by the Association of Polar Early Career Scientists, headquartered at the Arctic University of Norway in Tromsø.

Michael Loso, a scientist at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, is featured in the film, which shows the importance of glaciers in natural ecosystems and in human society. In a recent interview, Loso explained to GlacierHub that he made the video two years ago when he was a professor at Alaska Pacific University. Stacia Bakkensto, a science outreach coordinator with the National Park Service at Fairbanks, suggested the idea of the video to him. She had selected Alaska’s glaciers as the theme for a story map—a set of video, images, texts and data that are presented in GIS form, linked to a map. She approached Loso because he was the lead author on a report from the NPS, Alaskan National Park Glaciers – Status and Trends Final Report, published in 2014.

Mount Blackburn and Kennicott Glacier (source:NPS)
Mount Blackburn and Kennicott Glacier (Photo source: NPS)

Backensto visited Loso near Kennicott Glacier, in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, where he was conducting a field course with students at the university. She shot a good deal of video that day, he recalled, and used some of it for the video featured here. Though that video did not fit into the story map that was produced (that one featured repeat photography of Alaska glaciers), it has circulated in a number of settings, and has received hundreds of views.

In the video, Loso stresses that glaciers are important, not just because they are linked to fisheries, to natural hazards and to other things of economic value to humans, but for themselves. He moved to Alaska because the glaciers are so cool—a word he repeats several times. He expresses the sense of “loss to our heritage” that glaciers are shrinking—in part because of human actions.

Loso states in the video that glaciers aren’t sentient beings “like wolves and bears,” which are protected through the Endangered Species Act. He adds “we don’t have an endangered glaciers act. If I was president, we would have one.”

Wrangell-Saint Elias National Park (Photo source: R. Droker/Flickr)

During the interview, he mentioned that he knew the work of the anthropologist Julie Cruikshank, who has written a book about her field work in the Wrangell-Saint Elias, Do Glaciers Listen? In that book, she discusses the views of the indigenous communities of the region, who believe that glaciers are sentient.

Loso paraphrased Cruikshank’s portrayal of the native historical view: “If you behave poorly towards them [the glaciers], they will exact their revenge.” Our modern scientific view is different, he said, and we understand that glaciers are not sentient. Nonetheless, he said, “cause and effect play out. We have behaved with a lack of respect, and much to everyone’s surprise, there’s a set of consequences that rain down on us.” In that way, he said, “the native peoples were right. The glaciers can cause misfortune, and therein lies a lesson for us, regardless of your worldview.”

He continued to explain his thoughts. The scientific revolution led us to move past “superstition and myth” by providing a scientific explanation for natural phenomena like volcanic eruptions and tornadoes. We no longer viewed these disasters as consequences of our own behavior. But now “the modern environmental movement has renewed that old sense of culpability.” He cited as an example the recent seismic activity in Oklahoma, which has shown us that humans can cause earthquakes.

“Our sense of responsibility has come back,” he said in conclusion. His film, along with his more recent one included below about rapid melting of Alaska’s glaciers, may spread this sense of responsibility more widely.